Baidu's bold new robotaxi comes with a detachable steering wheel

Baidu's new $37,000 minivan EV has self-driving capabilities, a take-it-or-leave-it steering wheel, and a proposed 2023 launch.

The Baidu Apollo RT6

Chinese search company, Baidu, announced that it’s introducing a new electric self-driving taxi called the Apollo RT6. Aside from looking a bit like a Honda Odyssey, it has a detachable steering wheel for use in the company’s autonomous ride-hailing service in 2023.

Sixth-generation — The Apollo RT6 is built on Baidu’s sixth-generation autonomous vehicle platform with an L4 autonomous driving system. It’s the company’s first to not designed to be retrofitted on other cars. Baidu announced it was developing its own electric vehicles last year, and this new robotaxi seems to be one of the first major fruits of Baidu’s twin self-driving and EV projects.

Baidu claims the work it’s done developing its own electric battery architecture is part of the reason why it’s able to offer the Apollo RT6 for the surprisingly low price of $37,000 to other companies looking to offer autonomous rides.

Besides a steering wheel that’s removable on purpose — apologies to Toyota’s slightly different wheel situation — Baidu claims the Apollo RT6’s interior should be incredibly modular, “allowing for the installation of extra seating, vending machines, desktops, or gaming consoles.”

See, no steering wheel necessary.Baidu

Self-driving is here? — If that all sounds a bit optimistic, you’re right to be at least a little suspicious. Baidu claims the RT6 is “production-ready” and yet most of it’s promotional materials feature what looks like a computer-generated cars.

The EV space is full of “vaporcars” and self-driving tech remains in the very, very, very, early stages of development and public use. Still, Baidu’s made some important, confidence-boosting strides. The company was allowed to test self-driving cars in Beijing without a safety driver in April 2022 and it’s been running it’s Apollo Go ride-hailing service in 10 cities in China. For comparison, Google’s Waymo One self-driving service operates in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area, with testing ongoing in San Francisco.

I’m not holding my breath for a self-driving revolution to somehow happen by Baidu’s 2023 Apollo RT6 launch, but the company is certainly making the case for itself.