Published: March 24, 2016 | Singapore
nuTonomy, a comparatively small MIT spin-out 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. Japan has already revealed plans to bring driverless taxis to mass market by 2020 with a local company called Robo Car.
nuTonomy’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 — 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, 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. nuTonomy also recieved a seed fund in February to steer R&D in vehicle autonomy.
nuTonomy co-founder and chief technology officer Emilio Frazzoli, an MIT professor of aeronautical and astronautical engineering says, “In Singapore, they want to have more buses, but they cannot find people to drive buses at night. Robotics will not put these people out of jobs — it will provide more capacity and support that’s needed. With driverless taxis, there will 60 percent reduction in the number of vehicles operating in Singapore. 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.”
nuTonomy uses LIDAR data in a way that provides more accurate localization — that is, determining where the car is within its environment. All autonomous cars use LIDAR for object detection, but nuTonomy’s system, he says, localizes by detecting not only objects on the road but also stationary objects all around the car. “Even though stuff at road level can change all the time — you can have a car parked here or not, for example — a building is going to stay put.
nuTonomy’s core technology and its connections with Singapore trace back about a decade at MIT. While developing its driverless taxi fleet, nuTonomy has bootstrapped through small contract projects for automakers. For Jaguar Land Rover, for instance, nuTonomy is developing an autonomous parking feature that will drop off a rider at, say, a shopping center and find its own spot in the parking lot. Such gigs have helped the company grow to 25 employees in Cambridge and Singapore offices, build relationships with the auto industry