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S'pore driverless taxi trial expands with Grab

Tie-up with nuTonomy comes just one month after successful launch in one-north

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A driverless -taxi trial in Singapore, touted to be the world's first, is expanding slowly with a larger area and more users, even as companies involved distanced themselves from increasing competition elsewhere.


A DRIVERLESS-taxi trial in Singapore, touted to be the world's first, is expanding slowly with a larger area and more users, even as companies involved distanced themselves from increasing competition elsewhere.

Self-driving technology start-up nuTonomy and ride-hailing app Grab announced on Friday a partnership that will see more users ride in nuTonomy's driverless taxis over a larger area in one-north.

In late August, nuTonomy announced the world's first public trial of self-driving taxi services on public roads - a 6km stretch in one-north in Singapore's west.

This past week, local authorities agreed to expand the trial area to a 12-km course that, crucially, includes an MRT station and more office buildings for these taxis.

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This lets nuTonomy "meet real needs" of users, said Karl Iagnemma, nuTonomy's co-founder and chief executive officer at a media preview on Friday. The start-up now has two cars on trial, with four more planned. Dr Iagnemma aims to have 12 by the end of the year.

Also, beginning Friday, selected Grab users can request to ride in one of nuTonomy's taxis for free. But while the first phase of the trial allowed users to request taxis on demand, Grab users will have to do it in advance. First rides made via Grab are expected to start 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. Should the user wish to travel beyond one-north, the driver will take control of the car. In Singapore, driverless cars cannot run on open roads.

No boundaries were shared at Friday's briefing, but nuTonomy said that Grab users looking to travel within one-north will be given priority.

This partnership puts Grab firmly into the self-driving car space.

Through user experience research, it hopes to understand how commuters react to self-driving cars. This way, it can enhance its routing technology and mapping for such cars.

Commuters' needs can thus be better met, said Lim Kell Jay, Grab's country head for Singapore, on Friday. According to Grab's 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.

Grab also benefits as the partnership can expand its supply of drivers, especially in "supply-constrained" Singapore, said Mr Lim. "Our growth will only be as fast as how fast we grow our supply of drivers."

The partnership between nuTonomy and Grab allows these two rivals of San Francisco-based ride-hailing app Uber to stake their claims in the driverless car segment.

After nuTonomy's late-August announcement, Uber upped the ante a few days later. In mid-September, it launched an autonomous taxi service trial citywide in Pittsburg in the United States, covering an area far larger than what nuTonomy does.

But on Friday, Dr Iagnemma stressed that nuTonomy will now focus only on surface roads, rather than highways that Uber's cars can cover. "We believe that much of the value is created by passengers who are looking to take short-ish trips ... It will be in the next phase of our technical development where we start focusing more heavily on highways," he said.

After moving its capital position past US$1 billion this past week, Grab's latest move opens up a new front in its war with Uber.

Uber called truce in late July with Chinese rival Didi Chuxing, thus freeing up resources to focus on other markets. Uber has raised US$8.71 billion since 2009.

This past week, the US government also issued guidelines on driverless cars, hailed by observers as an important step for the technology.

Asked if Grab hoped for more regulatory advancement by the Singapore authorities so that it can benefit from quicker development of the technology, Mr Lim told The Business Times: "I'm quite confident that the regulators will do what is necessary to push this forward, but without compromising safety."

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