Author(s): Raghu Gopal
The classic science fiction movie Total Recall got this one spot on: robot taxis taking orders.
This week, Singapore became the first country in the world to launch a self-driving taxi service when NuTonomy, a US autonomous car start-up, debuted the world's first public trial of its technology. The company is offering free public trials of the autonomous cars in Singapore's One-North business district.
To hail a taxi, patrons request an invite to use the NuTonomy ride-hailing smartphone app and if selected, can request free rides in a modified Renault Zoe or a Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
Given several recent high-profile accidents associated with autonomous cars, a NuTonomy engineer will be riding in the vehicle to monitor the trials. Google and Uber have been following the same "human backup" approach when testing their autonomous cars on public roads.
The timing of this news is notable as last week Uber announced that it will begin offering autonomous vehicles to customers as part of its ride-hailing service this month in Pittsburgh. NuTonomy has made sure it has earned the title of being first.
The pace to put autonomous cars on the roads has been picking up this year. Companies such as BMW, Google, GM, Toyota and Fiat have been developing some sort of self-driving vehicle. But the real initial challenge will not be the science but the regulations. Autonomous vehicles are being pitched as a safer and more reliable alternative than having old-fashioned humans behind the wheel, but it will take several years to gain public trust. Singapore will now become a test case in the global driving gold mine.