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When Uber announced that it would let the public hail self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh before the end of the month  some autonomous vehicle experts could not believe it was happening so soon.

In fact the $60bn multinational has just been scooped by Nutonomy, a small MIT spin-out whose electric self-driving cabs have already started picking up real customers in a Singapore business park. Initially, riders will use Nutonomy’s own app to summon hail a Mitsubishi i-Miev or a Renault Zoe, ramping up to a dozen vehicles in the coming months.

Like Uber’s upcoming rides, this is a controlled experiment with a safety driver behind the wheel and a limited service area. Nevertheless, it is the first time anywhere in the world that anyone will be able to hitch a lift from a robotic vehicle on public roads. The company will not be charging for the rides.

“The pilot is going to allow us to collect technical data, but equally importantly, it’s going to allow us to find out if people enjoy riding in driverless cars,” says Karl Iagnemma, Nutonomy’s CEO. “When people get into the car, some will love it, some will be indifferent and some won’t like it. But how many won’t like it– 3% of the ridership, or 30%? We want to know that number. And Uber wants to know that number, too.”

Founded in 2013 by ex-MIT engineers, Nutonomyannounced a $3.6m funding round in January, followed swiftly by $16m in funding in May from venture capitalists including Ford chairman Bill Ford and the Singapore government.

Like Uber and Google, Nutonomy is convinced that the real benefits of autonomous technology will only be realised when humans never have to touch a steering wheel or brake pedal.

“Introducing a human operator in the loop brings an enormous amount of complexity and unpredictability,” says Iagnemma. “These ‘simpler’ systems [like Tesla’s Autopilot] are in fact harder to develop and harder to guarantee their safety than [fully autonomous] cars.”

The trials in the high-tech One-North business park are open-ended, says Iagnemma: “We plan to keep offering rides as long as we continue to learn new things from the data.”

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