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On-Demand Robot Taxi Rides Available in Singapore Through Partnership with U.S.-Based Startup

In partnership with ride-sharing company Grab, NuTonomy, a 50-person startup out of MIT, in August became the first company in the world to do public testing of robot taxis.

by Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle / September 23, 2016
The Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car is one of the two vehicles being road-tested in a Singapore business district. Flickr/mariordo59

(TNS) — Grab, the biggest ride-hailing company in Southeast Asia, is now offering on-demand robot taxi rides in Singapore through a partnership with NuTonomy of Cambridge, Mass.

NuTonomy, a 50-person startup spun out of MIT, in August became the first company in the world to do public testing of robot taxis, putting a Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car on the road in a Singapore business district. It plans to have six autonomous cars on the road there shortly. San Francisco’s Uber this month launched its own public trials of a handful of autonomous cars in Pittsburgh. In both Singapore and Pittsburgh, the autonomous cars have a safety driver and support engineer in the front seats.

A fleet of automotive and technology firms are racing to turn self-driving cars into a widespread reality. Lyft, Uber’s hometown rival, is working with General Motors on an autonomous ride service. On Sunday Lyft President John Zimmer said he expects the majority of the company’s rides to be in autonomous vehicles within five years.

Grab is adding a special icon to the apps of select customers to indicate robot taxis are available. If the ride goes outside the designated area, the human driver will take the wheel.

The city-state’s government encouraged the trials, according to NuTonomy. “Singapore is likely to be the first country in the world to actually have autonomous vehicles operating as a true service on its roads,” said CEO Karl Iagnemma in an interview this month. “Their regulatory environment is favorable toward autonomous-vehicle technology. You cannot overstate how important that is.”

This week, the U.S. outlined its rules of the road for autonomous cars in a long-awaited document from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that includes a 15-point checklist for safe design, development, testing and use.

The Singapore tests aim to gauge consumer reaction to the sci-fi technology.

So far, Iagnemma said, “People have gained comfort by assigning the cars human-like qualities. One said, ‘It drives like my mother drives,’ which we took as a compliment. One couple named their car ‘Harry’ and cheered it on for clever maneuvers in traffic.

“It’s amazing and a bit shocking to see that steering wheel turn by itself for the first time. Personalizing the experience is a way to engage and get comfortable with it.”

Grab CEO Anthony Tan said in a statement: “This landmark tech partnership is a step toward supplementing Singapore’s transport network with an innovative driverless commuting option for underserved areas of Singapore.”

The partnership is set to last two months but could be extended.

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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