Self-driving taxi service launches in Singapore

The world's first self-driving taxis have begun picking up passengers in Singapore.

Free rides are available to select members of the public who can hail a cab through their smartphones.

The taxis, which are operated by Nutonomy, an autonomous vehicle software start-up, represent the first public rollout of a service using the technology.

A UK-based connected car technology developer already announced earlier this month that it will launch a driverless taxi fleet in Singapore next year but Nutonomy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff, has beaten them to it. 

App-based taxi company Uber is also looking into driverless vehicles and began trialling the technology in Pittsburgh in May, with a view to offering public rides in the coming weeks. 

While multiple companies, including Google and Volvo, have been testing self-driving cars on public roads for several years, Nutonomy says it is the first to offer rides to the public.

But Nutonomy is starting small, with only six cars currently in service, rising to a dozen by the end of the year. In addition, for now the taxis only run in a 6.5 square kilometre business and residential district called ‘one-north’, and pick-ups and drop-offs are limited to specified locations.

The ultimate goal, company executives say, is to have a fully self-driving taxi fleet in Singapore by 2018, to help cut the number of cars on the city state's congested roads. Eventually, the model could be adopted in cities around the world, Nutonomy hopes.

Riders must have an invitation from Nutonomy to use the service and while the number of riders is relatively small for now, it plans to expand that list to thousands of people within a few months.

The cars, modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electrics, have a driver in front who is prepared to take back the wheel and a researcher in the back who watches the car's computers.

Each car is fitted with six sets of Lidar, a detection system that uses lasers to operate like radar, including one which constantly spins on the roof. There are also two cameras on the dashboard to scan for obstacles and detect changes in traffic lights.

Ford has demonstrated its own driverless vehicles, which use Lidar technology to create a high-resolution 3D map of the area around it in order to successfully navigate even when in total darkness

Nutonomy’s chief executive Karl Iagnemma has said the time frame for testing the driverless service is open-ended, but that riders would start paying for the service eventually, and more pick-up and drop-off points will be added.

Nutonomy is also working on testing similar taxi services in other Asian cities, the USA and Europe, but Iagnemma would not give a time frame for when these would launch.

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

Doug Parker, Nutonomy's chief operating officer, said autonomous taxis could ultimately reduce the number of cars on Singapore's roads from 900,000 to 300,000.

"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," he said. "I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward."

Nutonomy, which employs 50 people and has offices in Massachusetts and Singapore, was formed in 2013 by Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers who were studying robotics and developing autonomous vehicles for the Defence Department.

Earlier this year, the company was the first to win approval from Singapore's government to test self-driving cars in one-north.

Singapore is ideal because it has good weather, great infrastructure and drivers who tend to obey traffic rules, Iagnemma said. As a land-locked island, the city of 5.4 million people is seeking creative ways to grow its economy, so it has been supportive of autonomous vehicle research.

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