East Tech West

From robotaxis to e-scooters, Covid is changing how people in China commute

Key Points
  • Demand for "individual traveling devices" has jumped during the pandemic, according to Chinese electric scooter maker Niu Technologies, which has seen its Nasdaq-listed stock surge around 300% this year.
  • Commuting via electric scooters is seen as safer and easier, compared to driving a car and taking public transportation, the company's Chief Executive Yan Li said at CNBC's annual East Tech West conference in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China.
(L to R) Edward Xu, CSO of EHang; Jianxiong Xiao, CEO of AutoX; Yan Li, CEO of NIU Technologies and Arjun Kharpal of CNBC speak on the second day the annual East Tech West conference in Nansha, Guangzhou.
Dave Zhong | Getty Images for CNBC

The need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has boosted demand for "individual traveling devices," according to Chinese electric scooter maker Niu Technologies, which has seen its Nasdaq-listed shares surge nearly 300% this year.

The company's Chief Executive Yan Li said the trend is observed globally: Europe, North America and even in China where the spread of Covid-19 has been largely contained. That's because commuting via e-scooters is seen as safer and easier, compared to driving a car and taking public transportation, he added.

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"After this pandemic, people actually appreciate individual traveling devices as opposed to taking public transportation, partly because of fear, of social distancing," Li said on Wednesday at CNBC's annual East Tech West conference in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China.

"What we observe is people are always looking for a safer, more convenient way of commuting in the city. And that's actually no different between China and Europe and United States," he added during a panel discussion moderated by CNBC's Arjun Kharpal.

Those similar factors have also caused a shift toward driverless cars, said Jianxiong Xiao, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based self-driving vehicle company AutoX, who spoke at the same panel discussion.

He explained that a fully autonomous car saves passengers from having to share space with a driver, which is "even better" and "even safer."

"So that's why after the global pandemic, the Chinese population actually [paid] a lot more attention to the robotaxi type of business," said Xiao, referring to his company's self-driving taxi service, which launched a pilot service in Shanghai in August.

In addition to ferrying people around, such autonomous vehicles can help deliver essential goods during the pandemic while minimizing contact between people, said Edward Xu, chief strategy officer at EHang, a Chinese manufacturer of autonomous flying vehicles.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the company launched an "air ambulance" to help hospitals transport medical staff and supplies during emergencies, said Xu, who also spoke at the conference.

Despite the benefits of autonomous vehicles, questions around safety from the public and regulators remain a major hurdle preventing them from becoming mainstream. Both Xiao and Xu said they're focusing on improving their respective technologies because that's a crucial way to ensure safety.

Xu added that having back-ups to the various systems that operate EHang's air taxis is key to its zero-accident record so far. The company has tested 6,000 flights with passengers across 34 cities in eight countries, he said.

"The back-up is behind our design," said Xu, adding that the power, navigation and electronics systems "are all backed up" so that the drones can still fly safely whenever something goes down.

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