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Self-driving car startup nuTonomy races Uber & Google to develop robo-taxis

By Ben Ames | August 26, 2016 | 11:02 AM

The race to develop self-driving vehicles took another lurching step forward yesterday when a Cambridge, Mass.-based tech startup called nuTonomy Inc. launched a public trial of its robo-taxi service on the bustling streets of Singapore.

The news comes just days after iconic ride-hailing service Uber Technologies Inc. accelerated its own effort to create self-driving taxis when it paid a reported $680 million to buy the San Francisco-based, autonomous trucking startup Otto and unveiled a $300 million deal with Volvo Car Group to build the technology into sedans and SUVs.

The sight of nuTonomy’s cars may be familiar to Singapore locals, since the company has been running daily autonomous vehicle tests in the city’s one-north business district since April. But those tests took on a high-octane flare on Aug. 25 when nuTonomy first invited residents to use its ride-hailing smartphone app to book a free ride in a self-driving car.

Passengers will not be completely alone, since a nuTonomy engineer rides along in each vehicle, monitoring performance and preparing to seize control if needed.

Formed in 2013 by a pair of robotics engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named Karl Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, nuTonomy has developed specialized autonomous driving software. The company works with partners to integrate that software with sensors and processors, then installs the entire system in a Renault Zoe or Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle.

In May, nuTonomy got a turbo boost in its race to test autonomous cars on public roads before industry heavyweights like Uber, General Motors Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google self-driving car when the company announced it had raised $16 million in funding from Highland Capital Partners LLC and Singapore’s economic development body.

Despite the impressive technology and jaw-dropping investment funds fueling the autonomous vehicle sector, industry experts say it will be at least another decade until providers can clear the regulatory and social speed bumps of unleashing unchaperoned robo-taxis on public streets.

In the meantime, nuTonomy is posting videos of the ongoing tests of its self-driving cars with unseen engineers riding shotgun.

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