UK: The World's First Driverless Taxi Trial

This article was written David Bailey, Professor at Aston Business School, and first appeared in The Birmingham Post on 30 August 2016.

Whilst on secondment for a month in Singapore, Professor David Bailey spotted a driverless taxi being trialled in a small area of the city.

Out and about on secondment for a month in Singapore, I've spotted a driverless taxi being trialled in a small area of the city. It's the world's first driverless taxi. At the moment it's strictly limited in where it can go and who can use it.

At present the driverless taxis only run in the 'One North' business and residential district, with pick-ups and drop-offs limited to specified points and invited passengers. The firm running the taxis, nuTonomy, says that dozens have signed up for the launch. I haven't been lucky enough to get my hands on an invite so have only watched one of the cars in action so far.

It's an interesting glimpse of the future, and the sort of thing that would have appeared on 'Tomorrow's World' years ago (or BBC News' Click programme today).

Driverless cars are being tested in many places - by Google and Volvo for example, and by various Innovate UK supported consortia in the UK which include a range of Midlands' firms including JLR, MIRA, RDM and Westfield - but the Singapore trial is a world first for a driverless taxi service.

Here in Singapore, those few members of the public invited to take part can hail a (currently) free ride on the driverless taxi using their smartphones.

It's something of a scoop both for the firm nuTonomy - which is a minnow competing with big industry players like Volvo or tech firms like Google and Apple - and the Singapore government.

The latter sees connected and autonomous vehicle technology as a key part of its latest industrial policy, looking for new tech firms to stimulate economic growth and at the same time helping to develop the technology that could ease congestion in a small, densely populated island.

The Singapore trial is starting small, with six cars on the roads (modified Renault Zoes and Mitsubishi i-MiEVs), growing to twelve by the end of this year.

The pilot is being used to gather data on nuTonomy's driverless software, routing efficiency and the consumer booking process, in preparation for launching a driverless taxi fleet on Singapore's roads by 2018.

Singapore is seen as a good test bed given its climate (although how current batteries will cope with the need for air-con is a question arising from my own electric car experience), excellent infrastructure and drivers who tend to stick to the rules of the road, which makes things a bit easier for algorithms running driverless cars.

The current test taxis are adapted electric cars like the one I drive on a daily basis back in Birmingham. At the moment there is a driver ready to take back the wheel and a researcher on board monitoring the car's computers. Each car has sets of Lidar - lasers operating like radar - and cameras to detect obstacles and traffic signals.

NuTonomy has raised the possibility of driverless taxis ultimately being able to cut the number of cars on Singapore's roads by two-thirds, from 900,000 down to 300,000. That could bring a raft of benefits as I've explored in Post blogs over the last few years, including less congestion, fewer accidents and less pollution, as well freeing up road space and car parking space for other use. Driverless cars really could revolutionise urban mobility.

Analysts reckon that the social and economic implications are potentially huge: beyond the practical benefits, Morgan Stanley estimated that autonomous cars could contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy alone, with global savings estimated at over $5.6 trillion.

In the case of the UK, KPMG and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders put the economic benefits here at over £50bn by 2030 and with wider adoption at over £120bn by 2040.

Tiny nuTonomy is a spin out from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has some pretty high profile backers. These include the venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners, Samsung Ventures, the investment arm of the Singapore government's Economic Development Board, as well as Fontinalis Partners (which was co-founded by Bill Ford, Chairman of the Ford Motor Company).

Nutonomy aims to become the "Intel Inside" of driverless cars, according to the technology magazine BostInno.

Things are hotting up in the race for driverless cars, with auto firms teaming up with taxi firms and ride hailing firms, seeing driverless taxis as part of the future.

Volvo recently announced a partnership with Uber where the two firms will invest US$300m to develop self-driving vehicles which will be made by Volvo and then purchased by Uber. Uber has also bought Otto, a maker of driverless truck technology.

Suppliers and software firms are also lining up to supply 'advanced driver-assistance systems' (ADAS) which are set to take off, with some analysts suggesting that the market will grow from around $6bn now to some $25bn by 2020, and over $50bn by 2025.

Such developments led Morgan Stanley last year to suggest that autonomous cars could go on sale within a decade, at first costing about $10,000 more than conventional cars. KPMG put the difference at just under £5000.

Back to Singapore, it's worth noting that the city state hopes to lead the way in public testing of autonomous cars. "We are inviting companies and research institutions to test-bed their technology and concepts here, in real-life, mixed-use traffic conditions," said Singapore's Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport in a recent statement.

As well as contributing financially, the Singaporean government aims to "fast-track regulatory and other administrative approvals, and get the trials and test-beds up and running quickly and with minimum fuss."

Similar efforts are afoot elsewhere. Uber is planning to trial driverless rides in Pittsburgh shortly, and GM and Lyft (an Uber rival) aim to launch an autonomous taxi service within a year.

Of course, as well as getting the technology 'right', all sorts of issues will need sorting out, especially on regulations and data privacy - there was a recent, interesting report on the latter by the law firm Gowling WLG.

But as Singapore today shows us, driverless cars really are coming. And when thinking of the driverless cars of the next decade, think of the autonomous taxi. You won't necessarily own a car but might summon one when you need one.

We could end up thinking about the 'auto-mobile' in a very different way.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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