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Uber beaten by Singapore’s NuTonomy in race to launch first driverless taxi service

As you read this, there are self-driving taxis tootling about the streets of Singapore picking up and dropping off regular folks like you and me.

The service, launched by driverless vehicle software startup NuTonomy, hit the streets of the island city-state on Thursday. It claims to be the first company in the world to offer members of the public rides in driverless cars, beating out competition not only from Uber, which is prepping a similar service for Pittsburgh, but also outfits such as GM and Lyft, which also have the same aim.

Singapore-based riders will be able to request a NuTonomy taxi using their smartphone – for free at the start – though with only six vehicles on the road at launch, you may have to strike it lucky to have a driverless car come pick you up. More cars will be rolled out in the next two years, according to an AP report.

Oh, and don’t expect to travel too far. For now, the cars will be puttering along the streets of the city’s 2.5-square-mile “one-north” business and residential district. You also have to put your name down in advance. “Dozens” of people are included in the initial launch phase, NuTonomy said, though it hopes to increase that number to “thousands” over the next couple of months.

Similar to Uber’s Pittsburgh plan, NuTonomy’s cars, which are adapted Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electrics, have a person in the driving seat in the event of an unexpected malfunction, and another individual in the back keeping an eye on real-time data gathered by the car’s on-board computers.

The vehicles are fitted with an array of sensors, including multiple sets of Lidar – a laser-based radar system that helps to monitor traffic conditions – and several advanced dash cameras that perform a similar function.

Related: If Uber and Lyft switch to self-driving cars, what about the drivers?

While plenty of firms around the world are investing heavily in developing their own driverless car systems, NuTonomy also has local competition from automobile technology supplier Delphi, which aims to start testing a similar self-driving taxi service next year.

As for NuTonomy, the hope is that driverless taxis could one day help to cut the number of vehicles on Singapore’s crowded roads by as many 600,000, bringing the figure down to a more acceptable 300,000.

“When you’re able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities,” NuTonomy CEO Doug Parker told AP. “You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks – I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward.”

NuTonomy actually started life in the U.S., founded in 2013 by Karl Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s currently headquartered in Cambridge, MA, though also has a base in Singapore to oversee its work there.