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Singapore’s self-driving cars can now be hailed with a smartphone

NuTonomy joins forces with ‘the Uber of Southeast Asia’

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The world’s first self-driving taxi has finally found its ride-hail network. On Thursday, NuTonomy, an MIT-spinoff testing self-driving cars in Singapore, announced a partnership with Grab, the Uber of Southeast Asia. The partnership will allow NuTonomy to expand its public trial, which started several weeks before Uber launched its own public test in Pittsburgh on August 25th.

Much like Uber’s self-driving test, select Grab users will get the chance to hail one of NuTonomy’s driverless vehicles by tapping the special “robo-car” icon in the Grab app. Pick-ups and drop-offs, though, will only occur in a 1.5-square-mile section of Singapore called North 1, which has been designated by the city-state’s Land Transport Authority as the testbed for self-driving cars.

All rides are free-of-charge and will be accompanied by two NuTonomy engineers — which again also echoes Uber’s approach. The trial will run for two months, with the possibility of extending depending on the feedback. Only six vehicles — modified Renault Zoes and Mitsubishi i-MiEVs — will be available for the initial test rides.

Perhaps realizing it needs a more high-minded purpose than just “self-driving cars are cool,” Grab is framing its public test as a way to provide transit to residents of Singapore who lack many options. Grab says its data suggests that drivers in Singapore “are less likely to accept a passenger booking request originating from or destined for remote locations,” which illustrates a possible use for robot cars.

The partnership between NuTonomy and Grab is “a step towards supplementing Singapore’s transport network with an innovative driverless commuting option for underserved areas of Singapore,” said Grab CEO Anthony Tan in a statement.

It’s unclear, though, whether Grab will find much use for self-driving cars in its primary markets. When I interviewed the ride-hail service’s lead engineer in the US last January, he told me that most of the Southeast Asian cities where Grab operates are still developing and lack the necessary infrastructure for self-driving cars.

But Singapore is a different story. The city-state is particularly bullish about autonomous technology, recently announcing plans to set aside almost four miles of public roads for driverless vehicle trials — with the ultimate goal of acquiring 300,000 shared autonomous vehicles to satisfy the needs of the entire population.

NuTonomy and Grab won’t be the only providers of driverless, on-demand trips in Singapore. Last month, Delphi announced that it will provide a fleet of self-driving cars to the city-state along with the software for a mobility-on-demand program.