One and a half year prior to the acquisition by Aptiv, in the summer of 2016, a month before Uber started experimenting with fleets of self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, another event took place – NuTonomy, a company based out of Cambridge, debuted their autonomous taxi fleet in Singapore, becoming the first company in the world to test self-driving cars with customers.
This test was remarkable for many reasons. The technology was groundbreaking, the concept of a car as a robot was paradigm-turning, and NuTonomy’s cooperation with the Singaporean government provided a collaborative model for other countries, including the United States. While Uber, with its enormous market share, might have received a very deserved amount of attention, NuTonomy is setting an example for OEMs and technology companies that are looking to navigate global markets.
NuTonomy’s Singapore Tests
NuTonomy unveiled its fleet of self-driving taxis in August 2016. The company does not operate in the same way as Uber does. NuTonomy opted to test on a much smaller, more controlled scale.
In initial tests, the company modified six cars (Renaults and Mitsubishis) to enable them to be self-driven. While Uber had their driverless cars pick up passengers randomly, with no advance notice, the Singapore test required riders to sign up in advance. In addition, NuTonomy’s vehicles could only use pre-determined pickup points within a 2.5 square mile radius (although to be fair, the city-state of Singapore is only about 227 square miles total).
Like Uber, rides were free and featured an engineer in the driver’s seat, both to maintain emotional continuity and to step in if anything went wrong. Nothing really did, although the staff of ReCode rode in one of the self-driving cars in April and noticed a few minor issues, such as the vehicle’s tendency to stop suddenly and maintain an unusual amount of space from the cars on the side of the road. Still, they were impressed, writing:
“Clumsy as it may have been, the car — which is still very much in the research and development phase — was navigating a more complex environment than other autonomous car companies typically test in. Many carmakers, in fact, have yet to even begin testing autonomous vehicles around pedestrians.”
Being able to understand traffic lights, navigate to a destination and not just detect obstacles but figure out when and how to pass them is no small feat for an autonomous vehicle. Often, that clumsiness was simply a result of the vehicle being overly careful and leaving considerable space between it and the object it was skirting.”
These successes have led NuTonomy to take on an optimistic turn. Thus, they started testing the technology in their hometown of Boston. They have been cruising through the city’s notoriously terrible traffic since January 2017 and more than the hills and bridges of Pittsburgh, the cranky drivers of Beantown promised to be an important test.
However, Boston is not the company’s primary goal. The founders of NuTonomy are already thinking beyond test drives, hoping to have fully self-driving taxis on the market in Singapore as early as 2019, years before their competitors. The reason for NuTonomy’s rapid developmental pace is not just their technology, but Singapore itself.
Understanding the Impact of Local Governments
Speaking earlier this year to thehindu.com, NuTonomy CEO, Karl Iagnemma, talked about what made Singapore such an optimized spot for their tests. He explained:
“The main reason is that the Singaporean government has realized that self-driving vehicles could have a significant positive impact on the economy, the transportation efficiency, and on the public health and safety of transport in Singapore. The regulatory environment is very capable, the infrastructure is very good, the weather is favorable for testing and developing the technology, and there are good driving practices and adherence to driving rules in Singapore.”
These considerations are all extremely important. For any new technology to take off, the conditions have to be exactly right. This goes above and beyond technical capabilities. Look at, say, the computer industry in Southern California in the 50s and 60s, it might not have flourished, was it not for a working patent system, investment in aerospace technology, and the massive diversions of the Colorado River that allowed Los Angeles and the surrounding area to grow. Such favorable circumstances frequently enable the development of technology.
That is exactly what Singapore offers. After years of the “benevolent authoritarianism” of Lee Hew Kuan, Singapore is a highly-developed state with an incredible and easy-to-use infrastructure. It is an ideal spot to launch technology that depends on clear, consistent communication. If roads were shaped at odd angles, with lots of potholes, too many blind spots, and pedestrians who jaywalked, the tests might have fizzled out before they even began.
As NuTonomy demonstrates, being able to understand local conditions and strategically adapt to them will be key to unlocking foreign markets. Autonomous cars will require enormous amounts of cooperation between OEMs, tech companies, and of course governments in order to really take off, and not all locations will be as amenable as Singapore.
OEMs and their partners might have to invest more in infrastructure in some locations or work with the government to help foster the right kind of educational and regulatory environments that enable countries to be equal partners in technological progress. All this can start by proving success in ready markets like Singapore, Taiwan, or Malaysia. Developments there can pave the way for the rest of the globe. Of course, we must also have the right technology.
The Car as a Robot and the Importance of New Ways of Thinking
One thing that differentiates NuTonomy from other self-driving systems is that it uses a “hierarchy of rules,” allowing the cars to break rules based on given inputs and adaptive learning. As NuTonomy COO, Dour Parker, told ReCode, “NuTonomy cars use formal logic. Essentially, we establish a hierarchy of rules and break the least important. For example, one rule is ‘maintain speed.’ Another is ‘stay in lane.’ We violate the ‘stay in lane’ rule because maintaining speed is more important.”
This logic seems to be derived from the way NuTonomy conceptualizes their cars. The company is an MIT-spinoff, run essentially by robotics geniuses. They did not think of their technology as ‘cars becoming more automated’, they thought of it as ‘robots learning to drive’. Even if it is, in the end, the same thing, it is an important conceptual difference, and NuTonomy’s success suggests that such creative thinking is a model to be followed.
In short, new cars require new ways of thinking. It is this shift in perspective that allows us to find fresh approaches to existing problems. Viewing the connected car as a human body, for instance, allows us to understand the car as a holistic infrastructure rather than a collection of parts. Cars are no longer just a way to get from home to another destination; with connected services, they are now an evolving ecosystem that can be continuously updated over-the-air.
It is a different world. As OEMs continue to evolve their ways of thinking and learn to operate in increasingly complex international markets, they must seek out partnerships with progressive technology companies that help bring different perspectives to the table. Partnerships extend both ways, of course, and young companies also have a lot to learn from OEMs’ decades of institutional expertise.
Thanks to the globe-changing efforts of OEMs and technology companies, we already have a glimpse of the future – someday soon, self-driving cars will give people rides not just within a 2.5-mile radius or through the streets of Boston, but everywhere around the world.
As the auto industry is changed by technological and economic currents, OEMs and Tier-1 manufacturers will need to partner with technological specialists to thrive in the era of the software defined car. Movimento’s expertise is rooted in our background as an automotive company. This has allowed us to create the technological platform that underpins the future of the software driven and self-driven car. Connect with us today to learn more about how we can work together.