S’pore sees robo-taxi launch

There will not be much space for passengers in a Mitsubishi i-MiEV when the researcher and engineer are seated. Source: Wikimedia

Singapore has launched a self-driving taxi service under a trial allowing passengers to use a smartphone app to hail a free ride in autonomous cars operated by nuTonomy, a US startup that has conducted trials in the Lion City since April.

NuTonomy asked residents to apply to join the scheme before they can book a free ride. An engineer sits behind the wheel, ready to take over, and a researcher will apparently be in the back taking notes.

Passengers will travel in a specially configured Renault Zoe or Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle and the engineer can take control of the vehicle if necessary.

Taxi app Uber is expected to begin testing an autonomous taxi fleet in Pittsburgh in the next few weeks.

Uber and pioneers of the autonomous driving, including Google, Tesla and Volvo, are already road-testing vehicles with varying success, but nuTonomy says it is the first to offer real lifts to the public.

The experiment is being conducted on a 6km area of One North, home to technology firms and state-research institutes. The six-car trial will be conducted in normal traffic and includes congested areas.

The firm is hoping to gather data on nuTonomy’s software, route efficiency and the vehicle booking process ahead of the launch of a commercial robo-taxi service in the city-state, which is scheduled for 2018.

Karl Iagnemma, co-founder of nuTonomy, told the media: “The trial represents an extraordinary opportunity to collect feedback from riders in a real-world setting, and this feedback will give nuTonomy a unique advantage as we work toward deployment of a self-driving vehicle fleet in 2018.”

The Massachusetts-based firm is a small player in the self-driving car race, which has been dominated by giants like Google and Ford. Founded in 2013 by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, it specialises in mobile robotics.

The company is testing self-driving cars in the US and UK, where it is working with Jaguar Land Rover.

Singapore is looking for new sources of economic growth and ways to reduce congestion and private car use.

The ministry of transport said it had “invited companies and research institutions who are at the forefront of this development to test-bed their self-driving technology and mobility concepts here, in real-life, mixed-use traffic conditions”. “We see this as a prelude to the eventual rollout of their self-driving transport solutions in Singapore,” the ministry said.

Uber has announced a partnership with Volvo to jointly invest US$300 million to develop a self-driving vehicle. Uber has bought Otto, a maker of self-driving technology for heavy goods vehicles.