Giant tech firms and global car companies are in an intense race to launch autonomous vehicles, but this week a three-year old startup beat all of them to the finish line.
nuTonomy, a spin out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), introduced the world’s first self-driving taxis to the streets of Singapore, beating the likes of ride-hailing giant Uber, Google and every automaker.
A select group of people was invited to download nuTonomy’s app and ride for free in the company’s “robo taxi” in a 2.5-square mile in a district called “one-north.”
“This is really a moment in history that’s going to change how cities are built, how we really look at our surroundings,” nuTonomy chief operating officer, Doug Parker, told Reuters.
The taxi roll out beat Uber by just a few days as it announced in mid-August it would have a small fleet of autonomous taxis operating in Pittsburgh, PA at the end of the month.
“Quite frankly I think Uber is the Goliath and we need to show that our technology is working and getting to a level of maturity that is viable for the marketplace,” Parker said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “We’re in a technology race here and I think there are going to be a handful of winners.”
The taxis are modified right-hand drive Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Renault Zoe battery electrics.
While the taxis can drive themselves, they have a driver in front who is prepared to take control if needed, plus a researcher in the rear seat who monitors the car’s computers.
Each vehicle is equipped with six sets of LiDAR, a system that uses lasers to operate like a radar, including a what’s becoming familiar spinning gum drop-shaped unit on the roof.
There are also two cameras on the dashboard that look for forward obstacles and changes in traffic signals.
The taxi fleet is small for now — six cars — but is expected to grow to at least a dozen by the end of the year with an expanded service area after meeting a series of milestones established by the Singapore government.
nuTonomy’s goal is to eventually partner with an automaker, tech company or others.
While the race to be first with an autonomous car has been won, other companies are continuing to work on self-driving vehicles.
Automotive supplier Delphi has teamed with Israeli driving assistant software maker Mobileye and they say they will have a vehicle ready by 2019, while Ford said its self-driver is slated for 2021.