Baidu Inc. has won approval to deploy the first fully autonomous self-driving taxis on China’s roads, giving it an edge over rivals like Inc. and XPeng Inc.

The tech giant has secured permits to operate robotaxis in Wuhan and Chongqing, it said in a statement Monday. The move marks a relaxation of Chinese rules, which previously mandated someone must be in the vehicle to take control in case of an emergency. 

Baidu will begin to provide fully driverless robotaxi services in designated areas in Wuhan between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Chongqing from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with five Apollo fifth generation robotaxis operating in each city. The service area covers 13 square km (5 square miles) in the Wuhan Economic & Technological Development Zone, and 30 square km in Chongqing’s Yongchuan district.

The company will work with regulators in cities like Beijing and Guangzhou to obtain similar permits, said Wei Dong, vice-president of Baidu Intelligence Driving Group. 

“It’s as if we’ve landed on the moon and built a base there,” he said in a video interview. “It’s just a matter of time for us to go to Mars or even beyond our solar system.”

In the US, Cruise LLC in June won a licence to charge for fully driverless rides in selected areas in San Francisco, but the General Motors Co.-backed startup is now facing regulatory scrutiny after two on-road incidents, including an accident that left two people with minor injuries. In China, Baidu and self-driving startup earlier this year were greenlit by local regulators to deploy cars without someone in the driver’s seat in part of Beijing.

Baidu, which operated China’s largest search engine, is transitioning to artificial intelligence and self-driving cars after its core advertising revenue shrank in the mobile era. Its smart-driving business provides software to carmakers like Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. and runs a ride-hailing app powered by a fleet of self-driving cars in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai.

In July, Baidu unveiled a new version of its robotaxi, called Apollo RT6, that it says costs nearly 50 per cent less to make as its previous model, opening the opportunity for cheaper travel. The company will double the number of robotaxis it has on Chinese roads to 600 vehicles by the end of this year, Wei said.