World’s first driverless taxi system comes to Singapore

Self-driving car start-up nuTonomy will help Singapore develop autonomous vehicle capabilities which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ease traffic congestion.

In a few years’ time, thousands of driverless taxis may be on Singapore’s roads.

Self-driving car start-up nuTonomy is helping the country develop its autonomous vehicle (AV) capabilities and is enroute to become the first in the world to roll out a driverless taxi system.

The driving force behind the company - its chief executive officer Karl Iagnemma - says in a recent interview that the concept of mobility as a service is increasing worldwide.

“The economic reality will be that it is significantly more expensive to own your own car,” says Iagnemma, who is a principal research scientist at US university, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  “We believe that this will lead to more and more people living in cities to give up owning a personal car.”

nuTonomy is an MIT spin-off co-founded and led by Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, its chief technical officer, who is an MIT professor of aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

The firm is set on tackling the “most difficult challenge” in self-driving cars: urban driving. 

Iagnemma says that despite the intense global competition – by big players such as Google and Uber – to develop self-driving taxis for big cities, nuTonomy has a big advantage because “we built the company based on over 10 years of research in developing AV technology”.

This technological head start is what will enable nuTonomy to be the first company in the world to deliver an autonomous taxi service, he notes. 

He adds that nuTonomy is quickly building a team of comparable size to the research groups at Google and Uber, and “we are confident that our technology is world-class.”

We hope to be a key piece in the AV ecosystem that is developing in Singapore.

Karl Iagnemma, chief executive officer, nuTonomy

The American scientist’s research over the past years has resulted in a dozen patents, with applications in passenger vehicle safety systems, robotic surgery, and Mars surface exploration. He is also well known for his short stories on the drama behind science, mathematics, and human-robotic relationships.

AV in a smart nation

With a strong scientific team behind it, nuTonomy is helping Singapore develop AV capabilities as part of its Smart Nation vision to harness technology to improve the lives of citizens, create more economic opportunities and build stronger communities.

Along with the rise of smart cities, the global AV and near-AV industry is expected to be worth US$1.9 trillion by 2025 highlights a McKinsey report, attracting many players such as large technology companies and start-ups developing AV technologies.

The possibility to reduce deaths from motor vehicle crashes, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are among the key benefits of AV technology.

McKinsey estimates that self-driving technology could result in fuel savings of 15 to 20 per cent with vehicles being programmed to reduce fuel waste due to rapid acceleration, speeding, and braking.

With AVs being controlled by computers, this also means manpower savings as labour is freed up for other purposes.

The software company has chosen Singapore as its central location to work on AV technology, says Iagnemma, because the island has “great infrastructure, a very supportive government, and world-class universities producing top engineers.”

Its CTO Frazzoli, currently the lead principal investigator in the Future Urban Mobility programme at Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), also has a strong connection to the city-state.

The company is currently in the process of getting approval for on-road testing. The pilot trials will be held at the One-North district, which is an area known as Singapore’s innovation hub.

One of nuTonomy’s key innovations is the development of a complete system for operating large fleets of driverless taxis using navigation software for urban environments, smartphone-based ride hailing, fleet routing and management, and controlling a vehicle remotely through tele-operation.   

It completed the first driverless test in March, conducted jointly with LTA and the Traffic Police.

nuTonomy’s driverless taxis - a Mitsubishi iMiev - successfully navigated an obstacle course without incident. This was part of the approval process to operate autonomously within One-North, says the firm.

Iagnemma shares that nuTonomy is looking at working with partners such as car manufacturers to deliver the autonomous taxi system. “Traditional car makers will build fleets of self-driving cars that they will sell to companies like nuTonomy, or offer as part of their own mobility service effort,” he says.

The start-up, which in May announced that it had raised US$16 million of funding this year, has differentiated itself by pioneering technology for motion planning and decision-making that is based on methods that have been used successfully in the development of spacecraft, airplanes, and other complex, safety-critical autonomous systems.  

The start-up has also received strong governmental support, with EDBI, the corporate investment arm of the Economic Development Board (EDB), also investing into the company.

nuTonomy says it will support Singapore’s efforts in transforming mobility by building autonomous vehicle capabilities and the ecosystem for it. This will help the city-state move away from a dependence on cars and reduce greenhouse gas emissions – a key part of its climate commitment under the Paris Agreement.

In its report, McKinsey estimated that 30,000 to 150,000 lives could be saved per year in 2025 if this technology is adopted, and carbon emissions could be reduced by as much as 300 million tonnes per year globally.

Such a system would also make roads safer and transport more affordable. In the long-term, the city can also be re-designed.

For example, the space allotted to parking cars in the central business district, as well as some of the roads, could be turned into urban parks and bicycle paths instead. About 17 per cent of land in densely-populated Singapore is currently used for roads.

Iagnemma shares his enthusiasm about other opportunities from AVs for the nation, which include exploring new concepts for future developments such as train stations served by feeder networks of autonomous vehicles.

With more than 25 employees, most of whom are working in Singapore, nuTonomy is “undertaking a substantial portion of our R&D in Singapore,” says Iagnemma.

“We hope to be a key piece in the AV ecosystem that is developing in Singapore,” he adds.

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