The future of autonomous driving is in the core of the Chinese city of Cangzhou. Baidu (BIDU -1.13%) announced on Friday that it has launched a branch of its robotaxi service Apollo Go in that city, the first time it is operational in a downtown urban environment.

Apollo Go is hooked into the company's wider digital ecosystem. The robotaxis can be booked directly through the Baidu Maps mobile app.

A Baidu self-driving car.

Image source: Baidu.

Initially, passengers will be able to hail the robotaxis at 55 locations in the city, which is in Hebei province near Beijing. The cars aren't entirely automated; a human driver is present in case an emergency override is required.

According to Baidu, recent advances in self-driving technology allow this fleet to operate in a more densely populated environment. Previously, Apollo Go had been introduced in an area of the city of Changsha.

The choice of Cangzhou as the site of its first truly urban network was not random. The company says that the city has invested significantly into the development of intelligent network technology, and has built one of China's most extensive networks of autonomous-driving testing roads. Baidu began running trials on its self-driving cars shortly after the city began permitting this activity in November 2019.

The company claims that Apollo is "the world's largest autonomous driving platform." Across China, this includes roughly 500 vehicles, which collectively have carried more than 100,000 passengers. 

On Friday, in contrast to the gains of the broader stock market, Baidu's American depositary shares declined by 0.8%.