MIT spinout NuTonomy just beat Uber to launch the world’s first self-driving taxi

Uber has taken the plaudits for its audacious plan to deploy driverless cars as soon as this month, but the U.S. giant has been beaten to the punch for actually introducing autonomous vehicles by a far lower-profile company that is working on the other side of the world in Singapore.

NuTonomy, a three-year-old company that span out of MIT, announced that its first autonomous vehicles available for public hire have hit the roads of the Southeast Asian country today.

The name may not be familiar, but this development hasn’t come out of the blue. Cambridge, MA-based NuTonomy has been working with authorities in Singapore for some time as part of the country’s focus on surfacing new technology. Indeed, the Singapore Economic Development Board itself was one of a number of high-profile backers to take part in NuTonomy’s $16 million Series A financing round in May this year.

As we wrote then, the company plans to introduce a fully-autonomous “robo” taxi service by 2018. Today’s announcement is a major step towards that goal, but NuTonomy has been privately testing self-driving cars in Singapore since April. It is also conducting trials in London and Michigan, and counts Jaguar Land Rover among its partners.

Singapore is the real test bed thanks to the support of authorities in the country, who are switched on by the potential to embrace technology to reduce congestion and cars ownership.

The public trial is a world-first, but it is starting in a small, controlled environment.

Customers can use NuTonomy’s app to summon a ride for free, but it is limiting availability to a 2.5km square business district area in Singapore — “One North” — with just a handful of cars, all of which are a Renault Zoe or a Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

Like Uber, the setup does require some human presence. Each car will include a NuTonomy engineer who will “observe system performance and assume control if needed to ensure passenger comfort and safety.”

The trials are likely to be hugely impacting for NuTonomy with the data captured from public rides going towards hitting that target of a fully self-driving car fleet by 2018.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick refused to be drawn on timeframes for when Uber will expand its self-driving car push. That’s where NuTonomy has a huge advantage in Singapore, a country that is just 720 km square with a government that pushes technology through a smart city program which includes open data, APIs and more.

“NuTonomy’s first-in-the-world public trial is a direct reflection of the level of maturity that we have achieved with our AV software system. The trial represents an extraordinary opportunity to collect feedback from riders in a real-world setting, and this feedback will give NuTonomy a unique advantage as we work toward deployment of a self-driving vehicle fleet in 2018,” NuTonomy CEO and co-founder Karl Iagnemma said in a statement.

To speed its development, Uber snapped up self-driving tech startup Otto in a rare acquisition that could be worth as much as $600 million. Given that Otto only launched publicly in May, that’s a pretty quick and enthusiastic pick-up from Uber, to say the least. It makes you wonder if Kalanick and co made efforts to acquire NuTonomy, given that knowledge of its technology has been in the public domain for some time and it has clearly made progress, too.