Uber’s Top Southeast Asia Rival Joins Self-Driving Car Trial

  • Grab app allows selective commuters to ride in nuTunomy cars
  • Trial is aimed at gathering research on user experience

A Strides Transportation Pte taxi, operated by SMRT Corp., displays an advertisement for the ride-hailing application Grab, operated by GrabTaxi Holdings Pte, in Singapore, on Tuesday, July 12, 2016.

Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg

Grab, Southeast Asia’s largest ride-hailing service, is about to get a piece of the world’s first public self-driving taxis.

Grab will team with driver-less software developer nuTonomy Inc. for a year to expand the reach of its small fleet of autonomous driving cars in Singapore, as nuTonomy works toward its goal of a full commercial launch by 2018. Grab becomes the second car-hailing service to offer self-driven vehicles on a trial basis to its users, after Uber Technologies Inc.

Until now, nuTonomy’s trial had been open only to hand-picked members of the public and its fleet was restricted to a 200-hectare business park with light traffic. But from Friday, a small group of Grab customers within the park will be able to use the app to book a ride beyond those confines, with an on-board engineer and a driver behind the wheel. The company will select the passengers from those who book in advance, taking factors such as distance and destination into account.

Since the point is to test autonomous and booking systems, all rides come free, the two companies said in a statement. As with the original trial that began August, a nuTonomy engineer tags along to ensure passenger safety, and a driver will take over the wheel when the car leaves the designated business park.

“The experience will be very similar to hailing a car today except that software will be driving the car, not a human driver,” Karl Iagnemma, nuTonomy’s chief executive officer and co-founder, said at a news conference in Singapore Friday. “We’re confident that it’s time to put Grab customers in our cars and the valuable lessons learned from this pilot are going to prepare us for our commercial launch in 2018.”

Self-driven taxis have gained attention since Uber said it will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon cars with their phones. Like nuTonomy’s trial, that fleet of specially modified Volvo XC90 SUVs will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat.

NuTonomy runs just one of several ongoing autonomous driving projects in Singapore, which is promoting the technology as part of efforts to reduce a reliance on privately owned cars. Public transit operator SMRT Corp. set up a venture in April with a Netherlands-based company to operate “driverless pods.” A center for testing and research of autonomous vehicles was set up by the land transport authority and one of its universities.

The partnership with Grab will enable the pair to study user patterns and behavior. Results from the tie-up can be used to enhance routing and mapping for self-driving vehicles, while improving the performance and safety of nuTonomy’s cars.

“Self-driving vehicles make a lot of sense” especially for customers in remote areas where they’re less likely to get a ride, said Lim Kell Jay, Grab’s country head for Singapore. 

NuTonomy plans to double its fleet of autonomous cars in Singapore to a dozen by end of this year. But its CEO said the public shouldn’t get overenthusiastic.

“What’s not the case is you will wake up one day a couple of years from now and see every car in Singapore on the road driving around with no one at the wheel,” he said. “It’ll be quite a long time before we get there.”

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