While we wait for self-driving cars, Singapore is already enjoying self-driving taxis, driverless cars which will pick you up, carry your to your destination and drop you off, all without holding whispered telephone conversations, or forcing their political views on you.
The trial is small in every way. Currently self-driving car start-up nuTonomy has just six vehicles on the road, and this little fleet consists of tiny Mitsubishi i-Mi and Renault Zoe electric vehicles. The service is also free right now, running as a trial more than as an actual going concern, and is taking place in a quiet neighborhood called One-North, a district consisting, says the Wall Street Journal, of tech and biotech companies. But its ambitions are big. nuTonomy COO Doug Parker thinks that Singapore will be the first country in the world to offer a nationwide autonomous-taxi service, and nuTonomy plans to have its own service running by 2018.
The trial has some severe limits, with only selected customers given access to the ride-hailing smartphone app. The cars will also come with a human in the driving seat, ready to take over if there’s a problem–which means that you might get some traditionally stimulating taxi-driver conversation after all. During the trial, there will also be an engineer in the back seat, monitoring the trip with a computer.
Even so, taxis might be the way that self-driving cars insinuate themselves into our lives. In the transition period, where a human is still required for safety backup purposes, a paid driver may be more likely to pay attention than you or I would in our own self-driving vehicle.
And, perhaps more importantly, we’re already used to ceding control when in a taxi, so perhaps the psychological barriers to accepting a driverless car will be lower. Either way, autonomous vehicles are coming, and probably sooner than we think, most likely in the form of public transport, and delivery vehicles. As a cyclist, always scared of distracted human drivers, I can’t wait.
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