Singapore’s obsession with control is why it’s now the first country with self-driving taxis

Autonomous wheels for hire.
Autonomous wheels for hire.
Image: NuTonomy
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If you cherish the freedom of the open country road, Singapore is probably not for you. Apart from being tiny, the tightly controlled city-state has one of the most highly managed driving environments in the world. But if you’re in the business of self-driving taxis, it’s not a bad place to be.

On Aug. 25 nuTonomy, a startup spun out from MIT, became the first company in the world to offer rides in self-driving taxis on city streets. It even managed to beat Uber to the punch; the ride-hailing giant will offer something similar in Pittsburgh later this month.

Working in nuTonomy’s favor: The idea of self-driving vehicles fits nicely with the ideals of Singapore’s micro-managing—some might say control-freak—government.

In 1998 Singapore became the first country to manage traffic via electronic road pricing. The ERP system automatically charges drivers “congestion pricing” for entering crowded areas at peak times. They don’t even need to slow down as they pass the electronic toll booths.

In 1990, Singapore started to curb car ownership by implementing the Vehicle Quota System. To own and use a vehicle, you have to bid for a Certificate of Entitlement, which lasts ten years. If demand is high, the certificate can cost more than a car.

In 2014 prime minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the Smart Nation program, a network of ubiquitous sensors and cameras that will let the government monitor everything from crowd density to the exact movements of all registered vehicles.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the government expressed a strong, early interest in driverless cars. It helped nuTonomy by investing in it and by quickly green-lighting the company’s trial service.

“They can move quickly,” Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s COO, told PRI. “They can institute things that, at a federal level in the United States, would be very difficult.”

For now the driverless taxi trial is limited to a small area, with only six vehicles. That might rise to a dozen by year’s end. But things will progress rapidly, Parker believes. “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, he told the Wall Street Journal (paywall).

By 2018, the company hopes to offer an island-wide autonomous taxi service. That would be a nice selling point when approaching other markets. Tightly controlled Singapore, somewhat ironically, is at the cutting edge.