Singapore on Thursday became the first country in the world with a fully autonomous ride-sharing service offered to the public.
The service is being run on a trial basis by American startup nuTonomy, which was formed by researchers at MIT and beat much larger firms such as General Motors Company [NYSE:GM], Google and Uber in the race to offer an autonomous ride-sharing service.
Only a few streets are covered (about 2.5 square miles) and an engineer is behind the wheel to supervise, but the miles racked up will provide nuTonomy with important information to further aid development of the technology. The goal is to have a widely-available commercial autonomous ride-sharing service, dubbed the “robo-taxi” service by the company, in operation in Singapore by as early as 2018.
The Singapore government was one of nuTonomy’s early investors. It’s looking for ways to reduce congestion. Currently, it heavily taxes private vehicles in order to reduce their numbers.
The cars used in nuTonomy’s service are electrics—either a Renault Zoe or Mitsubishi i-MiEV—and the rides are offered for free. The cars are controlled by nuTonomy’s custom software, which has been integrated with high-performance sensing and computing components fitted to the cars.
Booking a ride is done via a smartphone, using nuTonomy’s app.
In addition to Singapore, nuTonomy is operating self-driving cars in parts of Michigan and the United Kingdom. In the latter it is working closely with Jaguar Land Rover. It’s not clear yet, however, when nuTonomy will start offering rides to the public in other locations.
Uber is expected to start offering a similar service in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania soon but is yet to announce a date.