Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi says it will launch a robo-taxi service in Shanghai 'very soon'

Key Points
  • Didi VP Tiger Qie says users in Shanghai will be able to hail self-driving cars through its app once the robo-taxi service launches.
  • But the deployment of driverless vehicles won't mean a stop to putting humans behind the wheel, according to Qie.
  • He says the company will also be launching in Costa Rica as of Tuesday, in its latest drive to gain ground in Latin America.
Tiger Qie, VP of Didi Chuxing and CTO of Didi's Ride sharing Business Group, speaks with CNBC's Arjun Kharpal onstage at the East Tech West event in, Guangzhou, China.
David Zhong | Getty Images for CNBC

Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-hailing company, is set to launch a so-called robo-taxi service in Shanghai "very soon."

"We are going to launch a robo-taxi service in Shanghai very soon," Tiger Qie, Didi's vice president and chief technology officer of its ride-sharing unit, said onstage at CNBC's East Tech West event in Guangzhou, China. "The users can just hail self-driving vehicles through the Didi app."

Qie said Didi is currently only able to fulfil 65% of user requests when it comes to rides, but the launch of driverless cars would help it plug the gap in supply and demand. He added that the deployment of self-driven vehicles wouldn't mean a stop to putting humans behind the wheel.

"Autonomous vehicles and human-driven vehicles are going to co-exist," Qie said in a fireside chat with CNBC's Arjun Kharpal.

Didi has grown rapidly since it was founded in 2012, with 550 million users currently registered with its platform. The company took over Uber's China business back in 2016, and has more recently started expanding abroad into countries like Australia and Mexico.

Qie said the company will also be launching in Costa Rica as of Tuesday, in its latest drive to gain ground in Latin America.

Didi vs. Uber

But just like its Silicon Valley rival, Uber, Didi's swift rise hasn't been spotless. The company faced complaints from the public as well as regulatory scrutiny after a female passenger was raped and murdered by a driver using its Hitch carpooling service last year.

The firm subsequently suspended Hitch, but has since relaunched it in a public trial with improved safety features and a stricter driver and passenger verification process. However, women using Hitch were initially only able to take rides between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. local, while men could use it until 11 p.m.

Explaining the reasoning behind that move, Qie said it was a "very data-driven decision," as sexual-related complaints spike 50% between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

A spokesperson for Didi followed up to clarify that its Hitch service has since been made available to both men and women between the hours of 5 a.m. and 8 p.m.

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Like Uber, Didi has yet to report a profit. In 2018, the firm racked up losses totaling $1.6 billion.

The arrival of lossmaking ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft on the public markets hasn't exactly been met with joy from investors. Both companies' stock prices have fallen 36% and 43% respectively since their market debuts earlier this year.

But Qie, who was unable to comment on Didi's initial public offering plans, said the company was different to its American peers. He said the U.S. was a "very different" market to China, where one car is often "shared by six people."

"We're able to grow carpooling significantly while maintaining efficiency compared to our American peers," Qie said.