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Grab, nuTonomy to partner to expand driverless-taxi trial to more users, areas

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Ride-Hailing app Grab will enter the self-driving space with a partnership with startup nuTonomy that will be announced on Friday morning, The Business Times understands.

RIDE-HAILING app Grab has entered the self-driving space through a partnership with startup nuTonomy, hoping that this can - in the future - help meet Singaporean commuters' demand for underserved areas on its platform.

The partnership, announced on Friday morning after a Business Times report, will see selected Grab users take part in the world's first driverless-taxi trial here in Singapore.

It will also benefit from a larger trial area that was just approved by the Singapore government earlier this week. Chief executive officer of nuTonomy Karl Iagnemma shared at a media preview on Friday that the length of roads that nuTonomy's taxis can cover in one-north have doubled to 12 km. In Singapore, driverless cars are not approved to drive on open roads.

Beginning Friday, selected Grab users can use the app to reserve a free ride in a nuTonomy driverless taxi that is denoted by a "robo-car" fleet icon. Rides are expected to take place next week.

A nuTonomy safety driver and support engineer will ride in each of these cars to observe system performance, and ensure passenger comfort and safety.

The trial will also take tentative first steps outside its current confines of one-north, a 200 ha district in the west of Singapore. Users can choose to travel within one-north - the current business park where nuTonomy is conducting its public trial - or to adjacent neighbourhoods.

No neighbourhoods were named at the media preview, but should the user decide to travel on the roads outside one-north, the driver can take control of the vehicle, said nuTonomy.

nuTonomy first launched the trial in late August, beating another ride-hailing app, Uber, by a few days to claim the worldwide honour of being the first to launch a public trial of driverless-car services.

It currently has two cars on the roads, with another four more expected. Dr Iagnemma aims to have 12 by the end of the year.

Uber launched a driverless-taxi service in Pittsburg, US in mid-September. Though it came later than nuTonomy, the area covered was far larger as it covers the whole city.

Now, with Grab in partnership with nuTonomy, the competition in the driverless segment will heat up again.

Fresh from its US$750 million new injection of funding this week, Grab's partnership with nuTonomy can help it enhance routing technology and mapping for self-driving cars.

According to Grab's traffic data, drivers here are four times less likely to accept passengers requesting a ride from or to locations such as Jurong Island, Lim Chu Kang and Tuas.

This partnership can thus help Grab highlight how underserved areas in Singapore can be served by driverless cars.

nuTonomy raised US$16 million earlier this year from investors that included the Singapore Economic Development Board. The company is also running trials in the UK and US.

It hopes to introduce a fully commercial self-driving taxi fleet by 2018.