Waymo is widely seen as the leader in self-driving cars, but they’re struggling to officially launch an autonomous taxi service in the US.

In China, a self-driving taxi service launched this week -- albeit with plenty of strings attached.

Three self-driving taxis went on the road in Guangzhou yesterday, accepting online orders from the public with a starting fare of 12 yuan (US$1.73). The cars were made by startup WeRide.ai (formerly named JingChi.ai) and operated by Guangzhou Public Transportation Group.

The taxis are reportedly all Level 4 vehicles -- self-driving cars that can run without a human behind the wheel -- but they’ll all have drivers during the trial run, so... (Picture: Southern Metropolis Daily)

But to be clear, it’s not the most advanced fleet in the world. During the trial run, the cars only operated for two hours a day, and only for a short distance in a college area. And despite claims that the cars are “Level 4” autonomous vehicles -- able to run without a human behind the wheel -- all the cars have drivers sitting in the front seat, just in case.

Still, that a one year-old startup can put self-driving cars on public roads at all speaks to why China may overtake the US in AI one day.

While none of the world’s leading self-driving companies are from China, Chinese companies operate in a far more open environment. The national government’s official guidelines has given local authorities more power to approve road tests, benefiting startups and giants alike.

Baidu, one of the major players in China’s self-driving scene, said yesterday at its own conference that it will start producing self-driving passenger cars with FAW Group -- a Chinese state-owned automaker headquartered in the northeastern city of Changchun.

The two companies claimed that a jointly developed Level 4 model will be China’s first mass-produced driverless car when it arrives in late 2020.

A prototype of the Baidu x FAW model was unveiled… in a box. (Picture: iQiyi)

It’s also pairing up with Volvo to make Level 4 cars for mass production, which will come “over the next few years”.

On the same day, Tencent also laid out plans for its own self-driving project, as the company shifts its focus from consumer to industrial technology.

Tencent, which is a more recent entrant into autonomous vehicles, is taking a similar approach to Baidu and Waymo by not producing cars itself, instead aiming at providing software to automakers. The social and gaming giant claims it has three specialties: cloud computing, HD mapping, and an original simulation system that the company says is based on its strong game engine, virtual reality and cloud gaming technologies.