By Yilei Sun and Brenda Goh
BEIJING, June 27 (Reuters) - Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, backed by SoftBank Group, launched a test robotaxi service in a Shanghai suburb on Saturday after installing V2X (Vehicle to Everything) hardware throughout the area.
Under the test, customers within a designated area will be able to hire free on-demand rides using Didi's autonomous vehicles, which currently also have safety drivers, the company said.
V2X enables autonomous vehicles (AVs) to communicate with their surroundings and Didi has installed equipment at major junctions within the test area to minimize safety blind spots and coordinate communication among its fleet, it said.
The equipment will mainly be used by Didi's own cars, although cars operated by other autonomous driving companies could also link up to the system, said Meng Xing, the chief operating officer of Didi's autonomous driving unit.
A broader rollout of V2X equipment to improve the use autonomous vehicles would require coordination with government, Meng told Reuters in an interview.
Didi chief executive Cheng Wei said the company expected greater use of artificial intelligence to revolutionise safety and efficiency of the urban transit system.
However, it would take at least a decade of continued investment before AV technology passed critical technology, business and regulatory milestones, he said in a statement.
Didi last month completed a more than $500 million fundraising round for its autonomous driving unit, which has more than 400 staff globally.
It is using vehicles with the Volvo, Lincoln and BYD marques in the current test.
Three-year-old WeRide, which is backed by Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi, is testing cars in Guangzhou and has installed some V2X equipment in its test area.
Baidu Inc started offering a robotaxi service in China's southern city of Changsha this year.
(Reporting by Yilei Sun and Brenda Goh; editing by Richard Pullin)