Baidu Inc.

BIDU -1.10%

unveiled a new autonomous car with a detachable steering wheel that it wants to use for its robotaxi service in 2023—up to a year before

Tesla Inc.

plans to start mass producing a similar vehicle.

Baidu, China’s long-dominant search-engine giant, priced the new model at about $37,000, nearly half of the $71,000 for the previous version of the car that was released in June 2021 with an ordinary steering wheel, the company said in a statement Thursday.

“We’re moving towards a future where taking a robotaxi will be half the cost of taking a taxi today,”

Robin Li,

co-founder and chief executive of Baidu, said at the company’s annual technology conference. He said cost cuts would enable Baidu to deploy tens of thousands of autonomous vehicles in China.

Global car makers and autonomous driving companies around the world are racing to put their driverless technologies in commercial use and lower costs. They still need to persuade governments to lift regulations on such services in the real world, with China and the U.S. yet to approve widespread use of fully autonomous vehicles.

Tesla aims to launch its robotaxi-focused model without a steering wheel or pedals next year and start mass production in 2024, Chief Executive

Elon Musk

said in a call with analysts in April. “A robotaxi ride will cost less than a bus ticket,” Mr. Musk said.

When asked about auto competition in China during Tesla’s most recent earnings call on Wednesday, Mr. Musk told analysts that any company that isn’t as competitive as its Chinese rivals would lose market share.

Google’s sister company Waymo LLC also in December unveiled a minivan without a steering wheel, co-developed with Chinese car maker Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. Waymo said it planned to use the fully autonomous vehicle in its robotaxi fleets in the U.S. in the coming years.

The Apollo RT6, Baidu’s new model, will run with Baidu’s level-four autonomous driving system, which doesn’t require a driver under most conditions, the company said.

The model, with a regular sport-utility-vehicle look, will integrate eight LIDAR sensors—detection systems using pulsed laser light—and a dozen cameras alongside the car, Baidu said.

Chinese laws require the model to have a steering wheel, but being able to remove it would allow more space for installing extra seats and other entertainment devices, such as videogame consoles, if the rules are changed, the company said.

Beijing-based Baidu started developing autonomous driving technologies in 2013 and launched the first mass-production model with state-owned car maker China FAW Group Co. five years later. It also provides autonomous driving systems to car makers including China’s


In April, Baidu and, a rival backed by

Toyota Motor Corp.

, got permits to run their robotaxi service without having humans in the driving seat on public roads in a designated 60 square-kilometer area in Beijing. Most local governments in China still require a human driver for safety concerns.

During a meeting with some top Chinese officials in May, Baidu’s Mr. Li called for relaxing restrictions on the autonomous driving business. Baidu said its robotaxi service has provided more than one million rides through pilot projects in 10 Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou since it launched in 2020.

Last month, Jidu Auto, Baidu’s electric-vehicle arm with Geely, also launched a concept car with autonomous driving capability, which the company said was 90% similar to the planned final production model. Baidu didn’t disclose the manufacturer of the steering wheel-free model Apollo RT6.

Write to Raffaele Huang at

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