Transportation

Singapore's Largest Ride-Hailing Company Invests Millions in California Self-Driving Tech

The company hopes to deploy Meadow View-based Drive.ai’s autonomous technology in the densely populated city.

by David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle / September 29, 2017

(TNS) -- Few places outside California have courted the self-driving car industry as eagerly as Singapore.

The reasons are obvious. With the third-highest population density in the world — a snug 20,000 people per square mile — the island nation needs ways to move its citizens without relying on privately owned cars and the freeways and parking garages they require. Robot taxis, combined with Singapore’s existing light-rail system and buses, could do the trick.

Mountain View startup Drive.ai announced this week that it received a $15 million investment from one of Asia’s largest ride-hailing services — Grab, based in Singapore — as well as other investors. In addition, Drive.ai plans to open an office in Singapore with an eye toward deploying its self-driving technology there.

“For Singapore, it’s not really whether self-driving technology arrives, it’s when,” said Sameep Tandon, Drive.ai’s CEO. “It has huge population density, and it can’t really build out infrastructure, because it’s an island.”

Drive.ai, which has now raised $77 million, was founded in 2015 by engineers from Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and it’s one of 42 companies licensed by the state of California to test autonomous vehicles on public roads. But the need for the technology, Tandon says, is global, as is the competition to perfect it.

“We view self-driving cars as our generation’s version of the space race,” he said.

Unlike most of its competitors, Drive.ai is developing a self-driving equipment kit that can be added to existing cars and trucks. The kit combines radar, cameras and laser-based sensors called lidar to feed data into Drive.ai’s proprietary software.

The retrofit kit, Tandon said, is just a starting point for the company — a way to get a product into the market relatively quickly. Fully integrating Drive.ai’s system into cars could come later.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is the software,” he said. “It’s about making these cars intelligent and safe.”

Singapore’s government has recruited self-driving car companies to test autonomous taxis and identified a specific city district, known as one-north, as the test bed.

NuTonomy, based in Cambridge, Mass., started a trial of autonomous taxis in August 2016. The company also formed an alliance with Grab, allowing Grab users in Singapore to request a self-driving taxi through the company’s app. Auto parts supplier Delphi also has an autonomous taxi test program under way in Singapore. For now at least, the cars all have humans sitting behind the wheel, ready to take control if necessary.

Meanwhile, European automaker Groupe PSA reported in May that it will integrate NuTonomy technology into customized Peugeot SUVs and test them in Singapore.

Pang Kin Keong, Singapore’s permanent secretary of home affairs, told the Voice of America news service in 2015 that if self-driving technology pans out as promised, his island city will one day be able to devote less space to paved streets and more to parks.

“You must dream, you must dream,” Pang said. “I want to live in a place much like the holidays and resorts that I go to once or twice every year, where the living environment is dominated by greenery.”

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.