A smooth ride, hands down

Sunday Times reporter Zhaki Abdullah together with nuTonomy safety engineer Greg Butron in the start-up's self-driving Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
Sunday Times reporter Zhaki Abdullah together with nuTonomy safety engineer Greg Butron in the start-up's self-driving Mitsubishi i-MiEV.ST PHOTO: ZHAKI ABDULLAH

On Thursday afternoon, I strapped myself into the passenger seat of nuTonomy's Mitsubishi i-MiEV when something unusual started happening.

The steering wheel started moving by itself.

The car moved off from its stationary position in Biopolis Street with no interference from nuTonomy safety engineer Greg Butron, who sat in the driver's seat.

Instead of placing his hands on the steering wheel, Mr Butron had them hovering above his knees, a few centimetres away from the wheel - a safety position, so he could easily take control of the vehicle in an emergency.

My ride in the i-MiEV was generally smooth, which nuTonomy chief operating officer Doug Parker attributed to it being an electric-powered vehicle rather than a petrol-powered one.

It might not quite be ready to handle peak-hour traffic in the Central Business District, but having seen what the car can do, I expect it will be able to do so sooner rather than later. Still, I'm not sure that I'm quite ready to abandon the human touch that drivers bring just yet.

Travelling at speeds under 30kmh, it easily negotiated traffic lights at the junction of Biomedical Grove and Biopolis Drive, stopping when the light was red and starting again when it turned green.

The car also halted when it encountered pedestrians on the driveway of the Genome building, stopping again a few metres later when three women tried to cross the road in front of it.

 

However, as it made a left turn into Biomedical Grove, the car encountered two delivery vehicles by the side of the road, parked about 4m apart.

It jerked slightly and stopped for a few seconds, before manoeuvring its way around the two vehicles and continuing on its way.

I was told later that the car had to figure out whether to go between the vehicles or to overtake them entirely, something a human driver could easily evaluate on sight.

My ride covered only about 500m, a fraction of the i-MiEV's usual 6km test route around one-north.

nuTonomy attributed the short distance to the depletion of the car computer's battery after conducting a number of test runs earlier in the day.

It has to charge overnight for about six to eight hours and lasts for about four hours on the road.

I was told that the recently acquired Renault Zoe requires only an hour to charge fully.

nuTonomy later let me see the car's normal route which, despite being in a relatively low traffic area, has numerous challenges.

It passed several construction sites with heavy vehicles moving in and out of them, and narrow single-lane roads which even an experienced driver might have difficulty negotiating.

It might not quite be ready to handle peak-hour traffic in the Central Business District, but having seen what the car can do, I expect it will be able to do so sooner rather than later.

Still, I'm not sure that I'm quite ready to abandon the human touch that drivers bring just yet.

I sometimes enjoy making small talk with taxi drivers about current events, as well as serendipitous encounters like being picked up by an Uber driver who turned out to be my brother-in-law's friend.

Later in the evening, I read the news that commuters in Pittsburgh in the United States will be able to book a ride in one of a fleet of self-driving Volvo XC90s that Uber will trial later this month.

Like it or not, the self-driving revolution is here. It's just a matter of whether we're ready for it.

Zhaki Abdullah

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'A smooth ride, hands down'. Print Edition | Subscribe