At the 2021 World Internet of Things Expo held in the eastern city of Wuxi between October 23 and October 25, Chinese autonomous driving startup QCraft introduced the country’s first 5G-enabled unmanned bus supporting online-based ride-hailing functions.
The ride-hailing manner adopted by QCraft allows passengers to request pick-ups and tracking of their bus’ real-time location via a WeChat mini-program. “Users can just book a seat on the bus and check on the estimated time of arrival while staying at home, which can reduce the waiting times for them.” Long Can, brand manager of QCraft, told Pandaily. “The ride-hailing feature can also help us lower costs during non rush-hours, as we can operate these buses based on demand.”
Long said that the company aims to take people directly to the destination after they get off the existing train network in an effort to provide a solution to the “last-three-mile” challenge. He added that the ride-sharing buses will also be launched in other Chinese cities in the future.
Yu Qian, co-founder and CEO of QCraft, spoke at the launch event, saying, “The 5G-connected self-driving bus has innovatively integrated the microcirculation pattern, fixed point pick-ups, and ride-hailing model together, creating a brand-new business model and crossing boundaries between robotaxis and robobuses.”
The company has set up three bus routes totalling more than 15 kilometers, which will connect the city’s CBD and industrial districts, and transport commuters to work and back home.
QCraft deployed Longzhou One – its self-developed autonomous minibus which has breezed through trials on open roads in Suzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing, Chongqing and Wuhan – to form the new fleet providing on-demand bus sharing services for residents in Wuxi.
The minibus is equipped with GPS, four cameras, two laser sensors and five radar sensors to navigate a network of predetermined routes. A combination of artificial intelligence technology and cameras enables it to detect and avoid obstacles on the road, including vehicles, pedestrians and animals. Utilizing high-speed 5G networks, the driverless bus can receive information regarding traffic and road conditions in real time.
For safety considerations, the battery-powered vehicle travels no more than 50 kilometers per hour and only 18 passengers can fit inside.
According to the company, the Longzhou One achieves “Level 4” automation, meaning routes are chosen by humans but there is no one behind the wheel and the vehicle can avoid obstacles on its own. Tesla’s Autopilot system is considered Level 2, which means the car can do the steering and acceleration, but the driver must still be ready to take the wheel. QCraft plans to have at least 100 autonomous buses on open roads in China by the end of this year.
Founded by executives who used to work at autonomous-driving pioneers including Tesla, Waymo and Uber, Silicon Valley-based QCraft acquired a California public road test permit in July 2019, only four months after its inception. In December 2019, the company shifted its focus from the U.S. to China, opening offices in Beijing, Suzhou and Shenzhen.
The autonomous future of driving promised by QCraft has helped the company attract high-profile investors including food delivery giant Meituan’s venture arm Long-Z Capital, IDG Capital and Genesis Capital.
In March, Bloomberg cited unnamed sources in reporting that TikTok owner ByteDance had participated in a fundraising round of QCraft in which the startup raised at least $25 million.
QCraft announced in August that it raised $100 million in its Series A+ round of financing, which has put the company on track towards the “unicorn” club, which refers to startups with a valuation of at least $1 billion, domestic media outlet LatePost reported.
QCraft’s focus on public transport is also finding favor with the government. In a policy initiative released in December 2020, the Ministry of Transport pointed out that public transport in China should become increasingly autonomous and smart, emphasizing the need to encourage technology developers to set up more demonstration sites across the country.