China’s WeRide secures self-driving vehicle license from UAE

The United Arab Emirates has given Chinese autonomous driving company WeRide the first national license for self-driving vehicles. The permit allows WeRide to test its Level 4 autonomous vehicles on public roads throughout the country.

Level 4 is a designation by SAE that means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.

The license is a step towards UAE ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s vision of making 25% of the country’s transportation fully autonomous by 2030.

UAE’s Council of Ministers approved WeRide’s permit alongside a national policy for electric vehicles on Monday. That policy includes building out a national charging network, regulating the EV market and stimulating related industries like AVs that could reduce emissions and preserve the quality of roads.

UAE, and specifically its most populous city Dubai, has been home to various driverless vehicle trials over the years. In 2019, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) set up a World Conference on Self-Driving Transport, an event geared towards bringing industry leaders in the space together. This year’s conference is scheduled for September and features a competition wherein companies and academic institutions will showcase their autonomous bus solutions.

The RTA has goal of limiting the number of vehicles on Dubai’s roads and scaling robotaxi operations to 4,000 vehicles by 2030.

The city has also welcomed Cruise, a San Francisco-based General Motors subsidiary, to test and develop robotaxis. Cruise began mapping Dubai in July 2022 in preparation for a planned launch in 2023. The company said it hopes to put Cruise Origins, its purpose-built robotaxi, on Dubai’s streets this year. Dubai’s RTA confirmed in April that Cruise has several autonomous Chevy Bolts — at least five can be seen in one video — collecting data and testing in the Jumeirah 1 area, a residential area on the coast.

Cruise did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for updates on its planned launch in Dubai this year.

WeRide said in a statement that it would start testing “all types of self-driving vehicles” in the country. The company aims to commercialize its self-driving tech across a range of vehicles, including robotaxis, robobuses, robovans and autonomous street sweepers.

WeRide has been testing robotaxis on certain public roads in UAE over the last year. In March, the company officially established its presence in the China-UAE Industrial Capacity Cooperation Demonstration Zone, a Chinese state-owned zone that aims to promote industrial cooperation between the two countries.

The company did not respond in time to TechCrunch to provide more details on its launch, such as which markets it will target first, how many vehicles it plans to test or how it plans to commercialize.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, WeRide has set its sights on Saudi Arabia. The company announced in September 2022 its plans to work with the Saudi Artificial Intelligence Company to launch a robobus route in Saudi Arabia.

It’s not clear what sorts of regulatory hoops UAE will make companies jump through in order to test, deploy and commercialize autonomous vehicles in the country. The testing process will be carried out by the RegLab, an initiative by the General Secretariat of the Cabinet, but neither that organization nor the RTA has responded to TechCrunch’s requests for more information.

In the U.S. and China, where most testing of self-driving vehicles is happening, there’s a more decentralized approach to regulation that’s led by local governments.

For example, in the U.S., California and Arizona have seen the most AV testing and commercialization, but the two states have very different methods for regulation. In California, companies need to secure a series of permits to test, deploy and charge for rides with and without human safety drivers from two regulatory bodies — the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission. WeRide currently holds permits from the DMV to test AVs with a driver and without a driver in California.

Meanwhile in Arizona, companies need only self-certify that their vehicles meet the minimum risk condition of being able to bring themselves to a safe stop in the case of a system malfunction.

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