NuTonomy starts trials in Singapore of self-driving taxi service

The startup will offer rides on specially configured Renault Zoe or Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicles

NuTonomy is offering rides in its self-driving taxis to select residents of Singapore from Thursday, ahead of a commercial launch of the service in 2018.

The trials on the smartphone app-based service follows an agreement earlier this month between NuTonomy, a startup set up by two former MIT experts in the areas of robotics and intelligent vehicle technology, and Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) to begin trials of an autonomous mobility-on-demand transportation service.

The NuTonomy trial comes ahead of similar tests planned by Uber Technologies later this month on the streets of Pittsburgh in the U.S.

NuTonomy said its new “robo-taxi” service, which will include specially configured Renault Zoe or Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicles, will run on an on-going basis within Singapore’s one-north business district, where the company has been conducting daily autonomous vehicle testing since April. You can see a video of the trial here.

The vehicles will be fully autonomous but an engineer from the company will ride in the vehicle both to monitor its performance and to also take over control if required at some point for safety or other reasons.

NuTonomy will also be collecting and evaluating information about system performance, the efficiency of the vehicle booking and routing process, and the overall experience of the passenger, it said.

The company's distinct advantage in this venture is its association with the Singapore authorities as it tries out the new technology, which has attracted scrutiny from regulators in many countries.

Singapore is  looking at "car-lite" model that complements existing public transport with shared mobility-on-demand services. LTA has also signed with Delphi Automotive for the testing of self-driving vehicles.

The company raised in March US$16 million in Series A funding led by Highland Capital Partners that included participation from Fontinalis Partners, Signal Ventures, Samsung Ventures, and EDBI, the corporate investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board.

A number of carmakers and component makers are developing technology for self-driving cars that they are targeting at ride-hailing companies. Ford said earlier this month that it intends to have a high-volume, fully autonomous vehicle in commercial operation in a ride hailing or sharing service by 2021.

General Motors has also invested $500 million in ride-hailing company Lyft, in a deal that would see them jointly developing an integrated network of on-demand autonomous cars.

NuTonomy, with operations in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Singapore said it operates self-driving cars in Michigan and the U.K., to test software from automotive makers like Jaguar Land Rover.

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