Uber rival Grab partners with driverless car firm nuTonomy in Singapore

NuTonomy: We're here to fill a need, not take drivers' jobs
NuTonomy: We're here to fill a need, not take drivers' jobs

Users of ride-hailing firm Grab will be able to book driverless cars from Friday as it partners with a start-up testing the technology in Singapore, just days after rival Uber debuted its self-driving vehicles in the U.S.

The move comes as technology companies and automakers race to build autonomous vehicles and develop new business plans for what is expected to be a long-term makeover of personal transportation.

Southeast Asia's Grab said its app will allow select commuters to book and ride start-up nuTonomy's driverless vehicles within a western Singapore district, where the vehicles are being tested, and adjacent neighborhoods. Up to five of the autonomous vehicles will initially be running in the trial, although that number could expand if the Singaporean government gives permission for more.

A safety driver and support engineer will ride in each nuTonomy car, the two companies said in a statement. If a trip required travel on roads outside of Singapore's one-north district, the safety driver would take control of the vehicle for that portion of the trip, they said.

The public trial will run for the next two months, and may be extended by the companies for as long as it continues to yield valuable feedback and data, Grab said.

In order to be chosen to book one of the driverless taxis, potential riders must submit a registration for that includes details such as their passport number and their employer. If chosen, their ride will be free, but they'll be asked for feedback after the journey.

The cars won't operate when it's raining, and once in the vehicle, test-riders won't be permitted to take pictures or video.

Self-driving cars on demand launch in Singapore
Self-driving cars on demand launch in Singapore

NuTonomy, which started a limited public trial of the first driverless taxi in August in Singapore, has said it hopes to have 100 taxis working commercially in the city-state by 2018.

Countries around the world are encouraging the development of autonomous technologies, and Singapore, with its limited land and workforce, is hoping driverless vehicles will encourage its residents to use more shared vehicles and public transport.

Grab said its data showed drivers in Singapore are less likely to accept a passenger booking request originating from or destined for remote locations, highlighting the need for "robo-cars" that can meet transportation needs in far-flung areas.

"There is no direct monetary funding (in nuTonomy)," a Grab representative said. "At this point, the partnership is focused on Singapore - though there may be other potential synergies between nuTonomy and Grab that we could decide to explore in the future."

The partnership ups the ante in the competition between Uber and Grab, which just raised $750 million in a funding round that gives it more ammunition to take on the U.S. firm in southeast Asia.

Last month, Uber bought self-driving trucks startup Otto and formed a $300 million alliance with Volvo Car Group to develop self-driving cars.

It launched its self-driving pilot program this month, marking the public unveiling of its secretive work in autonomous vehicles.

- CNBC contributed to this report.

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