A Singapore firm has beaten Uber to the punch and launched self-driving taxis in a business district in the capital city. In a disappointing, but essential twist, the cars will come with a ‘back-up’ human driver in case there’s an issue.

America had a hand in this launch, as two researchers from MIT founded nuTonomy. They have won the battle to get their self-driving cars into public service, even though their taxis will be limited to the one-north business district.

Singapore is a tech leader

The company has taken advantage of Singapore’s forward thinking approach to regulations when it comes to autonomous technology.

Airbus is currently running a pilot scheme for drones over the National University of Singapore’s campus and the country is keen to remove the bureaucratic barriers. It isn’t a third world lax approach, it’s a concerted strategy to position Singapore at the head of the technological arms race.

Uber, Google, Baidu, GM, Audi and, of course, Tesla have worked on self-driving technology for years. It might annoy them to see a relatively small start-up in the Far East steal the headlines.

“Quite frankly I think Uber is the Goliath and we need to show that our technology is working and getting to a level of maturity that is viable for the marketplace,” Doug Parker, chief operating officer of nuTonomy, said in an interview Thursday. “We’re in a technology race here and I think there are going to be a handful of winners.”

Not the best electric cars for the task

The company could have used better cars, but it has opted for a Renault Zoe and a Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Now we’re kind of disappointed that the cars will come with a back-up driver, but if that was the only way the company could get the green light from the regulators then it’s just what they had to do.

The pilot scheme is also limited to a 0.8-mile stretch, so really this is a glorified test program that just happens to have the public along for the ride.

“We are placing a strong bet that Singapore is going to be the first country in the world to offer a consumer service on a national scale,” Mr. Parker said.

Uber’s Pittsburgh scheme dwarfs this

While NuTonomy is first, Uber’s scheme will leave it well behind when it puts a fleet of cars on the streets of Pitssburgh. Within a few months, it wants 100 self-driving cars for hire roaming through the city and this is the precursor to fully-fledged autonomous taxi fleets.

Like nuTonomy, Uber will have a human driver at the helm of its custom Volvo XC90s. But the plan is to let the car do the work and only intervene if things go wrong.

There’s a lot riding on this pilot scheme. If the cars run faultlessly then Uber can make a case with the regulators on safety grounds. If Pittsburgh looks like a battleground with broken metal at every turn, or the forums fill with comments about drivers intervening, it will set the self-driving movement back years.

It’s going to be interesting.

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