The winner in the race for autonomous taxis: Singapore’s nuTonomy

With its new fleet of half a dozen cars, nuTonomy beats Uber and Delphi in the race for the world's first autonomous taxi service.

Yong Teck Lim/AP
A driver (r.) gets his hands off of the steering wheel of an autonomous vehicle during its test drive in Singapore on Aug. 24, 2016. The world’s first self-driving taxis, operated by nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup, will be picking up passengers in Singapore beginning Aug. 25.

Select commuters in Singapore can now hail a ride to work from the world’s first self-driving taxis as the autonomous technology company nuTonomy offers the first rides to the public.

The ultimate goal for nuTonomy is to have a fully autonomous fleet by 2018, but for now they are starting slow: only six cars are available in a 2.5-square-mile area of operation in Singapore’s one-north business district – and you have to have an invitation to use the service.

nuTonomy chief executive officer Karl Iagnemma says more cars, pick-up and drop-off points, invitations, and possibly testing in other Asian and European cities, will be added slowly.

"I don't expect there to be a time where we say, 'We've learned enough,'" Mr. Iagnemma said.

The cars, which still have a human driver prepared to take over if necessary, are either Renault Zoe or Mitsubishi i-MiEV models. They are equipped with six sets of lidar, a laser detection system similar to radar, and two cameras to scan for obstacles and detect traffic light changes.

"I couldn't see [any obstacles] with my human eye, but the car could, so I knew that I could trust the car," Olivia Seow, told the Associated Press of her ride in the autonomous taxi. She is one of the riders nuTonomy selected, and hopes the service will help her multitask during her commute, or ferry her father around Singapore as he gets older. 

This is a big victory, but Uber is quickly gaining on nuTonomy: the car-sharing company plans to launch autonomous cars made by Volvo in Pittsburgh within the next few weeks. While many experts say that completely self-driving cars are still several years away, the business drive has pushed the speed of production on this new technology.

nuTonomy, which has offices in Massachusetts and Singapore and was founded by Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, choose the island nation as a test site because of its strong infrastructure, drivers who tend to obey traffic rules, and general support of autonomous-vehicle technology.

Singapore also has an overwhelming influx of cars on the road, a problem nuTonomy hopes to help mitigate, by reducing the number of cars on the road by as many as 900,000, according to Doug Parker, nuTonomy's chief operating officer.

"When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities. You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks," Parker said. "I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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