8 Questions With James Peng of Pony.ai, One of China's Most Valuable Autonomous Vehicle Startups
It’s difficult to unnerve drivers in China, where on any given day roads are filled with innumerable obstacles. Pedestrians walk haphazardly on highways and food vendors push carts loaded with snacks through the streets. Flocks of electric scooters whizz around cars, taxis swerve into oncoming lanes to circumvent traffic jams, and bicycle rickshaws stop abruptly to pick up passengers. Motorists use horns with abandon and speed through intersections, disregarding red lights.
Unsurprisingly amid this chaos, drivers in the sprawling southern Chinese city of Guangzhou adapted quickly to seeing self-driving cars on their roads when tech startup Pony.ai started testing the vehicles there in late 2017.
“We used to see people taking out their cell phones to take a video or photos,” James Peng, the co-founder and CEO of Pony.ai, told TIME. “Now we get people trying to test our vehicles by aggressively cutting in front of them.”
Peng, who led development of the autonomous driving division at the Chinese search-engine company Baidu, founded Pony.ai in 2016 with another ex-Baidu employee, Lou Tiancheng, a renowned coder. Things have moved quickly in the past three years.
A few months ago the company launched an Uber-like app called PonyPilot—and naturally the car that picks users up doesn’t have a driver. The app is currently open to the company’s employees (who use it to commute to work and to get to their lunch appointments), government officials, and invited individuals. But Peng says they plan to open the service to the general public as soon as regulation allows for it.
Pony.ai also operates in the U.S (where companies like Alphabet’s Waymo and Tesla are furiously competing to get an edge in the autonomous driving space) and was just granted a license to test a robotaxi service in California.
Peng talked with TIME about self-driving cars and how China’s autonomous vehicle startups are faring against their U.S. competitors.
How is PonyPilot going so far?
It’s going great. We’re continuously scaling up the size of the fle