The driverless taxi is almost here

Singapore startup nuTonomy wants to put thousands of autonomous taxis on city roadways by 2019

singapore nutonomyav electric car
Ola Beilock/Ogilvy Public Relations

Driverless taxis and shuttles are coming to big cities, without a doubt.

Recently, I got to take a ride in a driverless car in Singapore, which helped convince me of the value of these vehicles. While I'd rate the overall concept of driverless taxis a 9 out of 10, the actual test drive I took merited just a 6.

It deserved a 6 rating mainly because of the reactions made by its collision-avoidance software being developed by Singapore startup nuTonomy. The software apparently over-compensated with a pretty hard braking action when we approached another vehicle that was parked in the other direction on a two-lane roadway and, later, when we got too close to a road crew. (I'm very forgiving about tech tests and pilots, so that 6 rating could easily bump to a 9 or 10 in just a few weeks.)

City transportation planners envision that such vehicles will be used primarily as a "last-mile" connector, such as between the end of a subway train stop or a major bus stop and a person's home or job site. That's the goal envisioned not just by officials in Singapore, but also their counterparts in places as farflung as Kansas City, Mo., and by Uber in its recently announced tests in Pittsburgh.

singapore electric shuttle Matt Hamblen

Tourists board an electric shuttle at Gardens by the Bay, a park in Singapore. Electric shuttles can carry as many at 10 tourists per trip over a one-mile road.

Google showed its latest driverless vehicle concept at its Google I/O developer concept last week, but apparently isn't confident enough yet in the tech to let many average people take test drives.

In Singapore, I took a ride in a Mitsubishi vehicle that was fitted out to be driverless. NuTonomy is an autonomous vehicle tech spinoff from MIT that is working with the Singapore government to deploy "thousands" of self-driving taxis all over this city of 5.4 million by 2019, according to company Chief Operating Officer Doug Parker. The test drive took place around a large block in a business district called 1 North, but could be expanded to a four-mile radius this summer if the government gives its approval.

There are plenty of places in Singapore where narrow streets and alleys, parked cars and pedestrians could pose challenges for driverless taxis. During my ride, nuTonomy's vehicle over-compensated for a vehicle parked in the opposite-driving lane, braking suddenly and then veering widely away from the parked vehicle, which wasn't even parked close to our travel lane.

At another point, when two pedestrians were on the sidewalk on our side about 100 feet in front, the Mitsubishi braked softly, which was kind of nice recognition that potential danger was ahead.

The most potentially serious threat was when we turned a corner near where orange cones had been set out by a road repair crew. The car reacted to the situation by hitting the brakes and then, uncomfortably, the car veered directly at one of the workers at very slow speed as he was working behind an orange cone before stopping just in front of the cone. The worker gave a suitably annoyed reaction (but they don't flip the bird in Singapore apparently) and we continued on our way.

NuTonomy officials described passing a car in the opposite direction as one of the hardest things for a driverless car to do. It will be "incredibly hard" to navigate narrow streets in cities like Paris, they said, but they are also engineers and don't seem too worried about eventually overcoming that difficulty. My 6 out of 10 impression of the test was matched by other reporters who took rides, including Johana Bhuiyan of Recode, who wrote a piece that dubbed her experience "clumsy, but safe." At least nuTonomy is testing the vehicle around pedestrians with wary reporters aboard, something that isn't being done much by other companies.

Of note for geeks: NuTonomy is using Ubuntu as its OS, a variant of Linux, on three desktop PC's located on-board, a technician told me. The electric-powered four-seater car was kitted with a steering wheel and brake that could be used when needed by a technician who rode along with me, as well as a second tech who rode in the back seat and monitored the pathway and obstacles on a large display.

At another location in Singapore, a popular tourist attraction called Gardens by the Bay, a self-driving, electric-powered shuttle bus called Auto Rider was transporting as many as 10 passengers along a 1-mile roadway inside the park. At one point, the shuttle comfortably slowed down when approaching pedestrians walking along the edge of the roadway and easily passed by the pedestrians within inches.

Auto Rider is a collaboration of Gardens by the Bay with EasyMile and RoboSoft, both of France, along with ST Engineering of Singapore. The Singapore government helped fund development of the shuttle, an example of the government's involvement in startup activities.

ST Engineering worked for a year on collision avoidance software to account for the near-daily rainstorms in Singapore. The outdoor visual navigation software has to be tuned to keep the shuttle from stopping during a mild rainstorm, but also has to be able to bring the shuttle to a complete stop during one of Singapore's short but heavy thunderstorms.

Both Auto Rider and nuTonomy's pilot show how Singapore's government and higher education systems are pushing technology innovations, including with autonomous vehicles (AVs). The nation is small, about the size of New York City, but hopes to export its innovations and seems open to working with almost any startup from around the world.

"We have to work with everybody because of our [small] size," said Steve Leonard, incoming CEO of SG Innovate, a new government entity. "We've said, let's not let our technology be too local." Singapore sees its role as encouraging tech innovation, almost as a global tech ambassador. "If you can throw a couple of logs on the fire, that's good," Leonard added.

A central advantage to working with Singapore is that the national government is the same as the city government, Leonard said. While Google, Uber and other companies will work hard to introduce AVs in the U.S., these companies will inevitably face regulatory and safety challenges from multiple state, county and city governments along the way, as well as from national transportation leaders. Singapore is betting that its singular government oversight for planning and regulation of such innovations will pay off with early returns.

Even more than its efficient government structure, Singapore seems keenly aware of the impact of new technologies like AVs on its citizens and average end-users. "Any smart technology is kind of useless until you translate it down to the person," said Alex Lin, head of Infocomm Investments, a government agency. I found his comment a welcome note.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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