Startup bringing driverless taxi service to Singapore
An exciting “driverless race” is underway among tech giants the United States: In recent months, Google, Uber, and Tesla have made headlines for developing self-driving taxis for big cities.
But a comparatively small MIT spinout, nuTonomy, has entered the race somewhat under the radar. The startup is developing a fleet of driverless taxis to serve as a more convenient form of public transit while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the densely populated city-state of Singapore.
“This could make car-sharing something that is almost as convenient as having your own private car, but with the accessibility and cost of public transit,” says nuTonomy co-founder and chief technology officer Emilio Frazzoli, an MIT professor of aeronautical and astronautical engineering.
The startup’s driverless taxis follow optimal paths for picking up and dropping off passengers to reduce traffic congestion. Without the need to pay drivers, they should be cheaper than Uber and taxis. These are also electric cars, manufactured through partnerships with automakers, which produce lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions than conventional vehicles do.
Last week, nuTonomy “passed [its] first driving test” in Singapore, Frazzoli says — meaning its driverless taxis navigated a custom obstacle course, without incident. Now, nuTonomy is planning on testing cars in a business district, called One North, designated for autonomous-vehicle testing. In a few years, Frazzoli says, nuTonomy aims to deploy thousands of driverless taxis in Singapore. The company will act as the service provider to maintain the vehicles and determine when and how they can be operated safely.
But a big question remains: Will driverless taxis put public-transit operators out of work? In Singapore, Frazzoli says, that’s unlikely. “In Singapore, they want to have more buses, but they cannot find people to drive buses at night,” he says. “Robotics will not put these people out of jobs — it will provide more capacity and support that’s needed.”
Importantly, Frazzoli adds, driverless-taxi services used for public transit, such as nuTonomy’s, could promote wider use of electric cars, as consumers won’t need to purchase the expensive cars or worry about finding charging stations. This could have a major impact on the environment: A 2015 study published in Nature Climate Change found that by 2030 autonomous taxis — specifically, more efficient hybrid and electric cars — used worldwide could produce up to 94 percent less greenhouse gas emission per mile than conventional taxis.
Behind the (autonomous) wheel
Frazzoli can’t really say how nuTonomy’s taxis may compare to the likes of Google, Uber, or Tesla, as their technology remains secretive. But nuTonomy’s software — based on research by Frazzoli, nuTonomy’s CEO Karl Iagnemma PhD ’01, and others — includes a few key innovations, he says.
One such innovation is advanced fleet management, derived from Frazzoli’s previous work writing algorithms to coordinate swarms of drones for the U.S. military. Using similar concepts, Frazzoli, Iagnemma, and nuTonomy’s engineers designed algorithms to allow the minimal number of cars to cart people around a city, alleviating traffic congestion and reducing emissions. In a 2014 paper published in Road Vehicle Automation, Frazzoli and colleagues estimated that 300,000 driverless taxis, in theory, could do the work of the 780,000 traditional taxis currently operating today in Singapore, while keeping waiting times below 15 minutes.
“That’s a 60 percent reduction in the number of vehicles operating in Singapore,” Frazzoli says. “This was a big sign of impact for [the Singaporean] government. At first we were asking them to let us test cars there — then they were asking us to come test.”