Autonomous Taxis to Join the Fight Against Global Warming

NuTonomy is tackling algorithms for driverless cars in urban settings.

While companies are striving to adapt to the recent changes in policies and social responsibilities to curb global warming, some have been conceived with the intention of solving them. In the US, tremendous efforts are being made in the green or sustainable energy production. And rightfully so- electricity is the biggest contributing factor to its CO2 emissions, and transport comes in second at 26% in 2014 (Figure 1). Moreover, although the major cause of carbon emissions around the world vary by their primary economic activities, transportation has been a recurring theme, especially in urban settings globally.

US Greenhouse gas emissions in 2014
US Greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 (

In response to the statistics, old and new transportation companies have been innovating to make transport more efficient. Pioneers such as Google and Tesla have created the wave of innovation in electric driverless cars, together with the trend of AI and machine learning, among many other efforts.

Making transport more efficient gives exciting possibilities in variations of the shape and sizes of our current vehicles. Ideally, transport in the future will be efficient in its power source, weight, and route. A study by researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK, University of Washington in Seattle, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory showed that innovations in transportation, including lighter vehicles and reducing aerodynamic pressure by making cars moving closely to each other, can reduce global carbon emission up 23 and 25 percent respectively1.

As important as the lithium batteries and sleek designs of new electric cars, one of the companies that focuses on the algorithm of driverless cars is NuTonomy. The start-up is a spin off from MIT that tackles urban driving, one of the most complicated aspect of the technology, yet impactful. Recently, they have just announced a partnership with Grab, Uber’s competitor in Asia to test their driverless vehicles2.

NuTonomy is an important puzzle piece in the effort to make transport efficient. A study in Nature Climate Change in 2015 published an article whereby emissions per mile from personal use cars could be reduced as much as 94% in 2030 in a “best-case scenario” of electric driverless taxis2. Autonomous taxis also make the most impact when combined with ride sharing. The study highlights with the increasing demand of travel, making efficient spending of energy in travel is ever more important. With the rate of innovation driven by Tesla and Google, Autonomous Taxis may be a reality in as soon as 2025.

The company was founded in 2013 by Karl Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli during their research in robotics and intelligent vehicle technology at MIT. The duo soon is joined by Doug Parker as COO.  So far, NuTonomy has raised $20M from the Singapore Economic Development Board, and a Venture Capital firm backed by Ford and another by Samsung. NuTonomy’s collaboration with the Singaporean government makes sense- with its limited land and workforce, the government is always pushing residents to use more public or shared modes of transport. Its partnership with Grab is strategic because it can offer transportation needs in far-flung areas5.

NuTonomy’s first-ever public trial is a bold testimony of their advanced software. To gear up towards their full vehicle fleet in 2018, these public relations stunts, as well as funding (they have just raised about $16M to complete trials), are essential to their eventual adoption by transportation providers. Just this year, Uber acquired Otto, a self-driving trucks start up, and partnered with Volvo Car Group to develop fully driverless cars5.

The adaptation of self-driving cars faces a lot of challenges. NuTonomy is smart- its partnership with the Singaporean government to push regulations to allow for these trials is a major asset for its growth in the region. Globally, debates surrounding actions to be taken in near-accident situations also increases the barrier for adapting these technologies fully; being aware of these progression in laws is important for NuTonomy’s success.

Nowadays, as you go around walking One North, the innovation hub of Singapore, a NuTonomy car whizzes by, and it will seem completely normal because of its juxtaposition against the buildings’ geeky names and the modern design of urban planning. But soon, if the trials go well, these algorithms may well replace steering wheels of Grab cars.

NuTonomy, like companies taking a stand to fight global warming, isn’t saying there is a silver bullet to solving transportation issues, similar to how transport is one of many efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Many other efforts by large auto-manufacturing companies as well as start-ups show that global warming is a call to action to increase efficiency in everything we do using technology. And as such, driverless cars, together with other approaches in new car design, is one of the necessary technological breakthroughs to enable a greener future.


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  2. Greenblatt, Jeffery B., and Samveg Saxena. “Autonomous Taxis Could Greatly Reduce Greenhouse-gas Emissions of US Light-duty vehicles.” Nature Climate Change Nature Climate Change9 (2015): 860-63. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
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Student comments on Autonomous Taxis to Join the Fight Against Global Warming

  1. Levi! This was incredible. I can’t believe that “reducing aerodynamic pressure by making cars moving closely to each other, can reduce global carbon emission up 23 and 25 percent respectively.” I realized that drag obviously contributed significantly to the force required to move a car, but I had no idea that moving them closer together made such a significant fuel savings. I suppose this is why you always see 18 wheelers on a highway following each other uncomfortable close.

    1. I know! Isn’t it super cool? Even more subtle is how they design the look of the car. I’m not a big sports car fan, but the curves on those have major differences in how they split air and move faster. I guess the cars in the future is not just trying to “look” cool, but it has some function in it too.

  2. I loved the article as I am a strong believer myself in the self-driving cars and their positive effect on our future! I have two questions in regards with the future of self-driving cars. First is the effect on the automobile industry overall. Many researches suggest that self-driving cars will also become sharable by numerous households (using subscription model), decreasing overall number of cars by 30-50% in next 10 years. This will affect overall size and performance of traditional automobile industry. And while there are more and more companies innovating in this direction, would you not expect a tremendous push back from auto giants, which might considerably slow down selfless cars adoption? My second question relates to the safety. In the environment where we will have a mix of human-driven and self-driven cars, how can we make sure that these two do not contradict each other on the road and do not create even more accidents?

    1. Iryna, thanks for commenting! You’ll be surprised to know how many of the big auto giants are investing in driverless cars today. They have a different incentive though, which is for luxury and added value proposition to their customer. NuTonomy is smart because once they can optimize their algorithm, they have many buyers for their product; they know these big auto companies do not have the expertise to innovate and test as much as this small start up can. They have regulatory barriers, brand perception, and customer safety to worry about. Start ups rule!

      To your second question, you’re absolutely right. A lot of controversy is around adoption of this technology. The challenge curve is almost like a negative exponential curve as time goes. I think this is why the partnership with Grab is so smart, because they have a fleet of cars to operate at once, which comes with both challenges and opportunities at the same time. They can test these fleets in a very controlled area with most of the cars being NuTonomy’s fleet. I was working at One North, the science/research complex in Singapore, and I can imagine that happening, as well as in Google Plex. Moving forward, I hope their algorithm is smart enough to accommodate bad and raging drivers on the road!

  3. Thanks Levi! I think it’s very interesting that the Singaporean government is on board with these trials — by extension, they’ll be first on board once the business is ready to launch at scale. I think this is hugely important for the future of driverless cars around the world. Yes, the US has a number of initiatives and a lot of active research on driverless cars and how to scale the concept, but I worry about the tendency of things like this in the US to take way too long to be approved through regulation. I think if a country like Singapore can experiment a little with this first, it will be a positive example to look to when convincing regulatory bodies in the US and other large countries that something like driverless fleets can be successful. I’ll be interested to see how this company does!

  4. Great post Levi. I actually recently read about NuTonomy Inc. in a Bloomberg article. Apparently the company is currently exploring the possibility of raising a new round of funding to fuel its future growth in advance of a commercial launch in 2018. This news raises an important reminder for NuTonomy to consider picking partners that will have an aligned vision with the company as well as with its other stakeholders, the Singapore government. I look forward to hearing the news and re-assessing how this partner will contribute to the company’s ambitious, yet laudable, goals of using software logic of autonomy cars to “drive” sustainability for our environment. One question I have is whether the company explicitly states that one of its primary goals is to reduce the environmental impacts of transportation by making transportation more efficient or whether you are making that case for them. If it’s not stated explicitly, are you worried that the company may instead choose to optimize routes for other goals such as profit and safety?

    1. Hi Daniel! That’s one of the things I really was thinking about, and whether it matters what their incentives really are. The research says that autonomous taxis have potential to reduce green house gas emissions significantly, also with changing cars’ design and energy source. Because there are so many pieces of the puzzle to begin with, I was more interested in the fact that this effort have the potential to help global warming, rather than the companies’ effort to identify with the problem.

      Also, I’m not sure whether optimized driving for profit and safety, compared to being more efficient/green are opposites. I’m going to guess that the incentives of their partners (taxi providers, for example), would be to optimize routes and travel for their consumers, and hopefully that will overall make travel more efficient, going by the logic that efficient = more riders going to where they want to be with less energy = green. It’ll also be really interesting to know what they’re going to do with traffic jams- would it be more efficient to wait, or to find a longer route? All these things make NuTonomy, I believe, a key piece to the future of travel.

  5. Levi,

    I found very interesting and surprising the fact that says basically making cars driving closer to each other can reduce carbon emissions by 25%!!! I couldn’t really understand how having driverless cars could impact global warming, but with this piece of information there’s no argument against it.
    My only consideration as this moves into the future would be what will happen with all the current workers in the taxi industry? Singapore is a great testing place given its limited workforce, as you mentioned. But I see a challenge implementing this in other major and more populated cities where the number of taxi drivers could be significant.

    1. Hi Neighbor, I think you’re right, and you hit a big uncomfortable topic there. Nobody knows the answer, and that’s why adoption is very slow. I do think NuTonomy shouldn’t worry about it so much, as they’re in a different stage of the pipeline of making a driverless taxi. I’m not sure to what degree NuTonomy should be educating their partners about the benefits of driverless vs normal taxis, and whether that will be included in their marketing efforts. Personally, I think the fact that they have a potential buyer shows how there is some validation that the benefits outweighs the cost (safety is a big argument, as well as efficiency and revenue), but this may also be a function of their ignorance of the issue.

  6. Hi Levi! Great write-up, thanks for sharing. I was very impressed to note the expected reduction in carbon emissions with increasing adoption of driverless cars. I was wondering if you had come across any impediments to the large-scale adoption of self-driving cars in your research. In a large part of the developing world, lack of proper traffic signage, and lack of adherence to road traffic rules by manually-operated cars may never allow self-driving cars to take off in any substantial fashion.

    1. Yes, I do think that NuTonomy has a machine learning capability built into the algorithm they’re building, so the more it drives, the more it learns. What I think they should do is to pilot these in different cities, which comes with very different challenges. Just imagine the difference between driving in Boston and Jakarta! (Although I do realize there are bad drivers everywhere, apparently.) Scaling up will be a very interesting challenge to them; it reminds me almost like genetics research, where they need to validate efficacy of a marker in different population to see if that mutation is still significant.

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