Pittsburgh and Singapore are now pilot sites for self-driving car services

19 September 2016

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Two self-driving car events of note: Uber just began operating a fleet of Volvo self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, and nuTonomy launched the first autonomous pilot taxi program last month in Singapore. Both still require a driver, although he/she will be as hands-off as much as possible.

Both Uber and nuTonomy are offering “fully autonomous” or full self-driving automation technology for hire. In 2013, the US Department of Transportation issued a ‘guidance‘ that defined five levels of automation. A ‘Level 4’ autonomous vehicle “is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.”

Most cars with functional autonomy right now are at Level 3, with limited self-driving automation: the driver is expected to be available for control when necessary. It’s a big step from Level 3 to Level 4, but the benefits are significant: in addition to leaving the driving completely to the car, it also means that the car is capable of driving itself with no human inside, which is what makes a robotic taxi service possible and why there is so much interest in the success of these services.


NuTonomy said its new “robo-taxi” service, which includes specially configured Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicles, will run within Singapore’s One-North business district, where the company has been conducting daily autonomous vehicle testing since April. The vehicles are fully autonomous but an engineer from the company will ride in the vehicle both to monitor its performance and to take over control if required at some point for safety or other reasons.

The pilot program uses smartphone app-based Uber-like call, instruct and pay software.

The program is the result of an agreement between NuTonomy, a Cambridge, MA-based startup of two former MIT robotics and intelligent vehicle technology engineers, and Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA), for trials of an autonomous mobility-on-demand transportation service.


The launch of Uber’s self-driving pilot program unveils Uber’s secretive autonomous vehicles program and marks the first time self-driving cars have been so freely available to the public.

Quoting from a Reuters story:

“Uber provided ridealongs to reporters on Tuesday. During a ride of about one hour, Reuters observed the Uber car safely – and for the most part smoothly – stop at red lights and accelerate at green lights, travel over a bridge, move around a mail truck and slow for a driver opening a car door on a busy street. All without a person touching the controls.”

Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet consists of Volvo SUVs and Ford Fusion cars outfitted with 3D cameras, global positioning systems (GPS) and a LiDAR that uses lasers to assess the shape and distance of objects, all mounted with seeming lack of design to the vehicle’s roof.

Pittsburgh is full of steep hills and narrow streets, potholes, tunnels and more than 440 bridges. It has snow and ice in the winter, blossoming trees that can hide street signs and traffic signals in the spring, blinding sun in the summer and a slippery ground cover of fallen leaves in the autumn. But Pittsburgh also offers Uber city leadership who have rolled out the red carpet plus helped pass a state law that allows for autonomous cars (as long as someone is behind the wheel to take over if needed).

Thus the merits of Uber’s new program: if Uber can do it in Pittsburgh, they can do it anywhere.

Are self-driving cars robots? What is a robot?

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have had an established definition for industrial robots for many years. Service robots, the everything else category, represents all other non-industrial robots. That’s a tough category to define because it’s a moving target as the industry grows and technologies improve. Now with questions rising about whether Level 3, 4 and 5 cars are robotic, or whether many consumer drones are just remote-controlled, the IFR has decided to hold workshops in October and November and release their findings and suggestions for redefining what is a robot by the end of the year.

Here is the present IFR service robot definition:

  • A robot is an actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy, moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks. Autonomy in this context means the ability to perform intended tasks based on current state and sensing, without human intervention.
  • A service robot is a robot that performs useful tasks for humans or equipment excluding industrial automation application.
  • A personal service robot or a service robot for personal use is a service robot used for a non-commercial task, usually by lay persons. Examples are domestic servant robot, automated wheelchair, personal mobility assist robot, and pet exercising robot.
  • A professional service robot or a service robot for professional use is a service robot used for a commercial task, usually operated by a properly trained operator. Examples are cleaning robot for public places, delivery robot in offices or hospitals, fire-fighting robot, rehabilitation robot and surgery robot in hospitals. In this context, an operator is a person designated to start, monitor and stop the intended operation of a robot or a robot system.

[A robot system is a system comprising robot(s), end-effector(s) and any machinery, equipment, devices, or sensors supporting the robot performing its task.]

An industrial robot, as defined by ISO 8373:

  • An automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications;
  • Its programmed motions or auxiliary functions may be changed without physical alterations;
  • It is capable of being adapted to a different application with physical alterations of the mechanical structure or control system except for changes of programming cassettes, ROMs, etc.

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Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.
Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

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