Innovation

Singapore launches driverless taxis ahead of Uber and the US

The world's first driverless taxis, powered by small startup nuTonomy, hit the roads in Singapore on Thursday, days before Uber's self-driving fleet arrives in Pittsburgh. Here's what it means.

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Image: nuTonomy

Want to ride in a self-driving car? If you're hailing a cab in Singapore, you're in luck—on Thursday, it became the first country to offer driverless cars to the public.

During the trial, which will provide no-cost rides in a 2.5 square mile radius in Singapore's "one-north" business district, tech company nuTonomy will collect information and data related to software, vehicle-booking, and how passengers respond to the self-driving cars—each of which will be overseen by a trained engineer at the helm. The information will later be used for a full-scale commercial launch nuTonomy is planning in 2018.

The self-driving fleet has arrived just days before Uber's own autonomous fleet is expected in Pittsburgh. But unlike Uber, nuTonomy, based in Cambridge, MA, is a tech startup on a much smaller scale—it has about 50 on its team.

How nuTonomy did it

But it's not about how many are on the team—it's about who those people are. The small startup was founded by two former MIT researchers, both with experience in robotics. Karl Iagnemma, nuTonomy CEO, said that the company hand-selected the top people for the job. "Our company had a running start," he said "and recruited people who knew this technology inside and out."

"As it turns out, collecting that type of highly-specialized, top-notch talent is really hard to do these days," said Iagnemma. "There are few teams in the world that can put together the right people to do the job."

And, unlike many automakers, nuTonomy knows what's involved in driverless tech. "One challenge that traditional OEMs face is that the technology in these cars is not traditional automotive technology—it's robotics technology," Iagnemma said.

SEE: How a pair of auto industry giants are fast-tracking 'level 5' driverless cars for 2019 (TechRepublic)

"This is why we've come at the problem as natives, where some of the bigger, more established groups have had trouble with it."

Why Singapore?

"Singapore's government has been an early and enthusiastic supporter of automated driving, especially as a way of improving urban mobility," said Bryant Walker Smith, professor at the University of South Carolina, and an expert on the legal aspects of self-driving vehicles.

And Singapore's investment in new technology shows—on Aug 1, nuTonomy signed an agreement with the Singapore Land Transit Authority to become a research and design partner, which means they could deploy their technology on Singapore roads.

The combination of "the regulatory environment, the infrastructure, the driving habits, the willingness to obey the traffic rules, and the weather," said Iagnemma, that "make Singapore the best place in the world for this technology." In the US and Europe, he said, the regulatory environment is more challenging.

SEE: Ford plans to mass produce a 'no driver required' autonomous vehicle by 2021 (TechRepublic)

Regarding the driving behavior, Iagnemma said that Singapore locals "generally drive well and obey the rules of the road, which actually makes the technical problem a little easier. You can generally assume that road users will behave in a rational way."

"This is a hard problem to begin with," said Iagnemma. "As a community, it makes sense to start in the places that are easiest to operate in."

What it means

"These vehicles will have in-vehicle drivers who supervise and intervene, so 'self-driving' remains something of a misnomer," said Smith. "But it's another commendable instance of getting actual members of the public into these vehicles. And it's another example of the service model on which companies are increasingly focusing."

It will, of course, impact taxi drivers. But, Iagnemma said Singapore has an aging taxi driver population. "There's concern in Singapore about where the younger generation of taxi drivers will come from," he said. "Driverless technology promises to do a lot of great things, not least of which is fill a labor gap."

SEE: When will we get driverless cars? Experts say public opinion is the critical factor (TechRepublic)

And while there will be an engineer in these cars at first, Iagnemma said the ultimate goal is to take the operator out of the car.

"That's where you see the big benefit in the technology," Iagnemma said. "That's where you get a cost savings, and that's when people will find that using taxis is much cheaper than owning an automobile. So that's where we're going."

The acceptance of these vehicles is another potential obstacle. But culture, Iagnemma said, is not always easy to predict. "When you ask people survey questions about driverless cars, it's a very abstract question," said Iagnemma. "Until they experience the technology, it's hard to have an informed opinion. Part of the purpose of this technology is to get real feedback from people who've sat in these cars."

"This is an information-gathering exercise," he said. "There's very little of that data in the world today."

And while nuTonomy is currently testing vehicles in Michigan and in the UK, the company won't reveal where they may unveil driverless cars after this.

"We know Singapore is the best place in world to launch the technology, and we're working on where to go next," said Iagnemma. "Our aim is to develop a global service."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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