Chinese driverless car firm WeRide launches ‘Robovan’ for delivery

WeRide’s Robovan, an autonomous vehicle designed for urban logistics. WeRide has partnered with automaker Jiangling Motors and delivery firm ZTO Express for the RoboWan project.

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GUANGZHOU, China – Chinese autonomous driving start-up WeRide has partnered with a top car maker and delivery company to launch a self-driving cargo van.

The strategic partnership between WeRide, automaker Jiangling Motors (JMC) and delivery firm ZTO Express aims to commercialize and mass-produce “Robovan” for urban logistics.

Nissan-backed WeRide manufactures autonomous driving systems for a variety of vehicles. Since 2019, it has been testing robotaxis, or autonomous cabs, on the streets of Guangzhou, China, where it is headquartered. The company opened the service to members of the public in limited areas of the city last year.

The company is also testing a self-driving bus it calls Robobus. Testing of these vehicles has helped develop RoboVan.

“We find that the boundary between a passenger vehicle and an urban logistics vehicle is disappearing,” WeRide CEO Tony Han told CNBC on Thursday. “It’s an autonomous driving vehicle. If you put a seat in there it can work as a robotic car. If you put a cabinet in there it’s really a logistics car.”

“These two applications [robotaxi and logistics] One can share a technology and they can both potentially generate a significant amount of revenue and profit. Why don’t we do both?” Han said.

WeRide will provide the autonomous driving system for the RoboVan, JMC will handle the manufacturing, while ZTO will deploy the vehicles for their logistics operations.

Han said the company would set up two or three locations to test the RoboVan and improve the vehicle’s performance. Once those pilot projects are complete, RoboWan can be rolled out on a large scale. Han declined to provide a timeline for this, but said he expects “thousands” of vehicles to be deployed in the future.

WeRide is one of China’s autonomous driving start-ups, which is valued at around $3.3 billion. It competes with companies including Baidu and Pony.ai. It’s expanding rapidly and earlier this year acquired an autonomous trucking company called MoonX.AI. MoonX already had a relationship with ZTO Express prior to the acquisition.

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Han said WeRide has been working on a research project with JMC since 2019 on logistics. When MoonX was acquired, WeRide managed to bring on ZTO Express as a partner.

WeRide’s business model will revolve around being involved in the final operations of ZTO’s logistics network using Robovans, rather than fully licensing its technology.

“By doing this we can generate recurring revenue as well as get feedback to improve the product,” Han said.

lack of chip

The global semiconductor shortage is affecting industries across the board, including automakers.

WeRide’s autonomous driving systems rely on different chips given the amount of sensors involved. Han said it could affect the company when it starts mass producing the vehicles.

“Since we’re using sensor towers, all these sensors and computational units, I think the lack of chips like this could affect our delivery and … our rollout plan,” Han said.

The chip shortage will not affect the existing project with JMC and ZTO, he added. But he said the company could see an impact if it needed to make 10,000 to 50,000 RoboVans.

“We have to do things in advance about protecting our supply chain and our supply chain,” Han said.

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