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Singapore To Be Home To The World's First Self-Driving Taxis

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Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

One of the self-driving cars in action. nuTonomy

Singapore is to become the home of the world’s first self-driving taxis. From this very week, passengers will be able to hail a free ride through their smartphones in taxis operated by nuTonomy, a startup company operating their own brand of autonomous vehicles.

By doing so, they have beat notable self-driving pioneers Google, Tesla, and Faraday Future to the punch. They’ve even trumped Uber, which has self-driving ambitions of its own, although the taxi company has stated that they will begin a passenger service in Pittsburgh this August, with two Uber team members riding alongside passengers in an alpha testing phase.

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Singapore’s nuTonomy self-driving Renault and Mitsubishi electric taxis will nevertheless be the first of their kind in the world, although also with a human driver on standby in the vehicle. All taxis are equipped with Lidar, a surveying technology that measures distance using lasers, which the vehicle’s on-board computers use to navigate their surroundings.

Starting with just six cars, the service will expand to about 12 by the end of the year. The ultimate goal is to have a sizable, fully-autonomous fleet by 2018.

Not only would this be gloriously high-tech and safer than regular taxis, but it would reduce congestion on Singapore’s incredibly busy, chaotic roads. Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s chief operating officer, claims it could ultimately take 600,000 cars off the road.

“When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities. You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks,” Parker told the Associated Press. “I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward.”

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Singapore. Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

For now, the taxis will only run in a 6.5-square-kilometer (2.5 square miles) zone comprising residential housing and businesses, and will feature an employee behind the wheel in case of emergencies and a researcher monitoring the computer screens. Pick-ups and drop-offs are currently limited to specific locations, and riders must have been personally sent an invitation from nuTonomy to use the service.

This may sound like a bit of a pain, but it’s all in the name of safety. Self-driving technology is hardly perfect, and although many partly autonomous cars now exist and can navigate along highways and smaller roads without incident, there’s a lot more testing and trials that need to be done – especially when there are passengers in the vehicles.

Already, there’s been one brief moment of panic when an Associated Press reporter taking a test ride came to a sudden stop as the safety driver slammed their foot on the brake pedal in order to stop a potential collision. As with all self-driving cars, the program will learn as it goes, and its underlying algorithms will improve themselves as time goes by.

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“I don’t expect there to be a time where we say, ‘we’ve learned enough,’” nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma noted to AP.

People are still understandably a little anxious about being driven around by a self-driving car, particularly if they are not sitting behind the wheel. Olivia Seow, one of the riders signed up to the program, took a short test ride earlier this week, and said she was quite nervous getting in. When the wheel began turning by itself, she remarked that “it felt like there was a ghost or something.” By her journey’s end, however, she felt far more comfortable.

In any case, this trial is another rather wonderful showcase for self-driving technology. Despite a few tragic incidents in recent times, and regardless of what panicked Internet warriors may say, these partly-autonomous cars, which are getting more advanced by the day, are statistically safer than cars with human drivers.

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The future is here, and it's self-driving. nuTonomy

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[H/T: AP]


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