An MIT-Singapore Partnership Is Launching a Driverless Car Pilot Program

Researchers say it cost less than $25,000 to turn this car into an autonomous vehicle.
Researchers say it cost less than $25,000 to turn this car into an autonomous vehicle. –Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology

MIT engineers are working hard to make driverless cars part of day-to-day life in Boston. For now, that means they’re at work in Singapore.

The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) is on the verge of rolling out a new stage of autonomous car development. Researchers plan to test a kind of driverless Uber – a system that lets riders use their phones to hail an electric, autonomous car that will take them to the nearest mass transit station.

It’s a small step forward. So far there’s only one car to test, and the ride-hailing app isn’t available to the public. Only the researchers themselves will be riders.

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But it will be the first time the team has put one of its vehicles on a real road, exposing it to the many factors an autonomous car will have handle if it is going to be integrated into people’s daily lives. That step can’t happen in Massachusetts, where it is currently illegal to test driverless cars on public streets.

By contrast, Professor Emilio Frazzoli, the lead investigator on SMART’s Future of Urban Mobility unit, says Singapore has been a perfect place to work thanks to a combination of technical resources, a highly developed transportation infrastructure, and political will.

“The government has always been on the leading edge in developing policies to manage congestion,’’ said Frazzoli. He said the island nation’s tiny land area and huge population has made it necessary.

In October, the Singaporean government supported a SMART project that made two driverless golf carts available for public use inside the island’s Chinese and Japanese Gardens. The buggies navigated the garden’s pedestrian walkways at about 10 km/h and could be reserved online.

“What we were doing in the Chinese Gardens was unique in a sense because these vehicles were driving around in a public space, not separate from people,’’ Frazzoli said.

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Frazzoli sees a potential near-term future for autonomous vehicles in the US doing something similar. Driverless carts or cars could be introduced on closed college campuses or industrial complexes, even under current Massachusetts law.

Still, the idea doesn’t satisfy Frazzoli’s long-term goals. “It doesn’t expose you to what you really want,’’ which is the full, complicated environment of a city street, he said.

A law currently making its way through the Massachusetts state legislature would legalize and regulate driverless car tests on city streets. Similar legislation has failed in many states, but passed in a handful, including Michigan, Nevada and California. “Hopefully, Massachusetts will join this group,’’ Frazzoli said.

The Boston metro region – urban, congested, with solid but incomplete mass transit coverage – would be a prime benefactor of the kind of “first mile/last mile’’ problem the MIT team is trying to solve in Singapore.

Driverless, hail-able cars would be an efficient way to get people from their homes to a T stop or commuter rail station. They would be environmentally friendly if they could convince commuters who drive to take mass transit, and especially so if they could ferry multiple passengers at a time.

Despite the legal obstacles, Frazzoli’s team is moving toward that future locally through its work in Singapore. “Really the difficult part is the software’’ being worked on abroad, Frazzoli said. “As soon as the regulation opens up, we can download it to a vehicle here and do exactly the same thing.’’

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