Kez Casey | Aug 26, 2016

The world’s major automakers and tech firms may be shooting for 2020 to launch their autonomous vehicle programs, but in Singapore you can catch a self-driving taxi right now.

While not yet a fully-fledged production reality, autonomous technology start-up nuTonomy has started a trial program of just six vehicles, with a total of 12 cars planned before the end of this year.

Initially the program covers a small area, just four square kilometres of Singapore’s ‘One North’ residential and business district, with specific pick-up and drop-off locations.

The aim of the pilot program is to put the vehicles into the hustle and bustle of a busy city environment, where most autonomous programs aim to start with relatively simple highway driving, and add to their repertoire over time.

For added safety each of the vehicles - a fleet of specially prepared Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Renault Zoe EVs - will have a human driver up front to take over in situations where the self-driving system might falter, as well as a nuTonomy researcher in the rear, keeping a critical eye on the vehicle’s computer network.

To ride the nuTonomy network passengers must first receive an invite, and right now just a few dozen applicants have signed up for the program, which nuTonomy expects to grow to thousands of applications once knowledge of the program spreads.

Plans are afoot to expand the footprint of the trial program, which is currently free for riders - with the introduction of regular fares planned once the network expands.

As well as Singapore nuTonomy is looking to introduce the service to other Asian cities before moving into the US and Europe, but is yet to indicate which locations might be next.

Singapore has been selected as the step-off point for the program thanks to its fair weather, obedient drivers, and the support of the local government which is interested both from a tourism perspective, and as a way of reducing the number of vehicles on city streets.

While both Volvo and Google are also in the on-road resting phase of their own autonomous vehicle programs, nuTonomy’s trial is believed to be the first to open to members of the public.

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