The world’s first public trial of a self-driving car service has officially launched in Singapore today, as U.S. autonomous car startup NuTonomy beats Uber to the punch by a matter of days.
Founded out of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2013, NuTonomy is an MIT spin-off that specializes in self-driving vehicles and mobile robots. The company raised a chunky $16 million in May of this year. The round was led by Highland Capital Partners but also included participation from EDBI, the corporate investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board. Earlier this month, NuTonomy revealed a partnership with Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) to initiate trials of an “autonomous mobility-on-demand transportation service,” the company said at the time. The ultimate goal is to launch a fully commercial autonomous vehicle (AV) service some time in 2018.
Until then, NuTonomy will be offering a public trial of the so-called “robo-taxi” service in Singapore’s One-North business district, where the company has been testing the service privately since April. It won’t be open to everyone though, residents are being asked to request an invite to use the NuTonomy ride-hailing smartphone app. If selected, users will be able to request free rides in either a Renault Zoe or a Mitsubishi i-MiEV vehicle.
For those worried that this may all seem a little premature, a NuTonomy engineer will be riding in the vehicle to ensure everything goes according to plan. This is exactly how previous self-driving initiatives have worked for other companies around the world, including Google and Uber — there is always a human backup “driver” in the car when it’s on public roads.
The timing of today’s news is notable. Back in May, Uber announced it was beginning tests of its own self-driving cars on Pittsburgh roads, but last week the company made a stunning announcement: It is to begin offering autonomous vehicles to customers as part of its ride-hailing service this month. With less than a week remaining in August, Uber’s launch is imminent, but by introducing its own service to the public today NuTonomy has claimed a notable “first” in the race to make self-driving cars a reality on roads around the world.
“NuTonomy’s first-in-the-world public trial is a direct reflection of the level of maturity that we have achieved with our AV software system,” said NuTonomy CEO and cofounder Karl Iagnemma. “The trial represents an extraordinary opportunity to collect feedback from riders in a real-world setting, and this feedback will give NuTonomy a unique advantage as we work toward deployment of a self-driving vehicle fleet in 2018.”
Though NuTonomy is launching the first public trial of its service in Singapore, the company has also been testing its specially adapted vehicles in Michigan and in the U.K.
If 2016 will be remembered for anything in the tech realm, it could well go down in history as the year the autonomous vehicle onslaught entered overdrive. So far, BMW has announced a partnership with Intel and Mobileye to produce fully autonomous cars by 2021. General Motors (GM) revealed plans for AVs when it invested $500 million in Lyft and Toyota set up a 50-person research lab to investigate ways to create self-driving cars while placing a strategic investment in Uber.
Elsewhere, Chinese tech titan Baidu launched a new Silicon Valley arm dedicated to self-driving cars, and the mighty Google teamed up with Fiat Chrysler to get “dozens” more self-driving cars onto roads.
Meanwhile, you can check out NuTonomy’s promo video for its Singapore launch below.