The world’s first network of fully self-driving taxis is up and running

By Johana Bhuiyan, Recode.net

NuTonomy, a self-driving company that spun out of MIT and is based in Singapore and Cambridge, Mass., has just launched the first-ever public test of a commercial fleet of fully self-driving cars. 

The company, which will be testing its ride-hail service in a Singaporean business district called 1 North, has been testing its self-driving technology in the area since April and was chosen to be the Singapore government’s official partner in the development of this technology earlier this month. NuTonomy plans to deploy a full fleet of vehicles — at least 1,000 — in Singapore by 2018. 

Through the test, a select number of people will be able to hail one of six nuTonomy cars — either a Renault Zoe or a Mitsubishi i-MiEV that the company has retrofitted with sensory and self-driving technology — using the company’s proprietary ride-hail app. A nuTonomy engineer will remain on board to ensure the system is working properly and to take over if needed. 

In this phase of the trial, the company is hoping to collect data and feedback on the user experience of the car and the app, the efficiency of the vehicle routing systems and other software-related issues. 

NuTonomy is certainly not the only company testing autonomous technology in a ride-hail service. Uber and Volvo announced a partnership last week that involved a limited test of its semi-autonomous XC90s, outfitted with Uber’s semi-autonomous technology. Select users in Pittsburgh could hail these vehicles via the Uber app. 

Semi-autonomous technology is typically what the industry considers to be level 3 autonomy because it still requires a person to remain engaged behind the wheel of the car. Level four and five self-driving technology are considered to be fully self-driving because it doesn’t require a person to remain alert or engaged. 

When Recode tried out the nuTonomy car while it was still in development, the movement of the vehicle was a bit clumsy, but the software was able to navigate around obstacles like construction and stopped vehicles in ways that few other self-driving prototypes had been able to. That clumsiness, of course, was less of a bug and more of a feature. To err on the safe side, the company’s engineers often program the vehicles to give other objects a wide berth. 

The company has been actively speaking to a number of automakers for a potential partnership, nuTonomy COO Doug Parker told Recode during the test drive, and may even consider licensing their technology to automakers sometime down the line. 

But as Singapore’s official partner, nuTonomy is laser focused on its goal of meeting the many technical milestones — of deploying self-driving cars without safety drivers, for example — that the government has set.

Ruben HorbachComment