Pony.ai, one of China’s most valuable driverless car start-ups, has launched an app that allows users to hail an autonomous taxi, making it one of the first companies to do so.

The app, which was quietly launched in late December, allows a user to hail a self-driving taxi from a pre-set location in Nansha, which is part of Guangzhou in southern China. The car can travel to specific areas that have been set by the company such as its offices or residential areas.

Currently, only employees and a few VIP users are using the app, which is a mini-program built within WeChat, China’s most popular messaging service. Rides are free for now.

Pony.ai, a $1 billion firm co-located in China and the U.S., makes software to power driverless cars. It does not make the vehicle itself. Instead it has partnered with automakers including China’s BYD and GAC.

The company’s technology relies on continuous testing and data gathering to improve the software, something that will be boosted by an autonomous taxi service carrying real passengers.

“It is the data, it is improving the capability of our driverless cars, we will inevitably encounter a lot more scenarios and we can use that to improve the system,” James Peng, CEO of Pony.ai, told CNBC on Monday when asked about what he will get from the driverless taxi service.

Peng said the company will look to grow its fleet of cars from 20 to 100 this year.

Driverless vehicle development is a key part of Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan. The space is extremely competitive in China with technology giants form Baidu and DiDi Chuxing, to start-ups like Pony.ai and WeRide.ai developing the technology.

Several major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, have designated areas for the testing of autonomous vehicles. Pony.ai’s autonomous ride-hailing service is not the first in China. Guangzhou-based WeRide.ai conducted some driverless car tests with the city’s taxi company. And in the U.S., Alphabet spin-off Waymo began a robo-taxi service for a few hundred users.

Peng, meanwhile, said Pony.ai is unlikely to expand its autonomous taxi service to large numbers of people this year. Eventually, though, the company wants to scale the program, which could win a new revenue stream and put it in competition with the likes of DiDi.

“That type of service is the ultimate goal we want to reach. How that competitive landscape will look like (in the future) is too hard to tell,” Peng told CNBC.

“Our ultimate goal is to provide rides, safe and convenient rides to the end user. It might take a long time, but that’s the ultimate revenue stream,” the CEO added.

~source