Reporter’s Notebook: Testing Out the World’s First Self-Driving Taxi

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A nuTonomy self-driving taxi hits the road in Singapore on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE—As my chatty human cabdriver dropped me off in the business district of one-north, I wondered whether it would be cruel to tell him why I was there: to test the world’s first publicly available self-driving taxi.

In this campuslike area not far from the center of Singapore, driverless software company nuTonomy began running its first road tests with members of the public on Thursday.

The roads in one-north, an area dominated by tech startups and biotechnology companies, are quieter than in other parts in the city. That makes it a natural place to test autonomous vehicles, such as the one operated by nuTonomy, a Singapore-registered company founded by two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While nuTonomy’s vehicle has high-tech computers inside, it doesn’t look like it’s from an episode of Star Trek, nor does it have the polish of a car from Tesla Motors Inc. In the rear of the vehicle, drill holes for the computer systems have been patched and it’s otherwise a standard compact electric car. The company’s logo is emblazoned on the side.

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The nuTonomy vehicle has sensors on all corners, a rooftop camera and another camera and laser where the rearview mirror would be in any ordinary vehicle. The company has permission from the Singapore government to use its test vehicle anywhere within one-north. It is programmed to navigate various routes around the area—the longest of which is just under 4 miles—and pick up passengers from places where it is safe to stop.

The Mitsubishi MSBHY -0.33 % i-MiEV electric car I tested was silent as it started off. It felt safe, but overly cautious, much like a new driver still figuring out how hard to press the accelerator.

A bank of computers is packed into the back, monitored by one of nuTonomy’s army of Ph.D.s, who communicate verbally with a backup driver in the front to compare what the computer sees with what is really going on outside. If the driver needs to take control, she can hit one of two bright red stop buttons or put the car back in manual mode using a control panel above the dashboard. A screen showing a digital street map is below this control panel, showing our location and objects the computer sees around it.

Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s chief operating officer, said that earlier tests with the vehicle had encountered unusual scenarios that the software had to cope with, such as illegally parked delivery vehicles, school buses letting off kids and a man in a chicken suit promoting Nando’s grilled chicken to crowds on the side of the road.

Singapore on Thursday became the first country in the world where self-driving cars serve as taxis, in a test of the technology by nuTonomy. Photo: Jake Maxwell Watts

Our ride through one-north had no such entertainment, unfortunately, but we did have to avoid parked cars and lots of pedestrians ignoring Singapore’s cultural objection to jaywalking. The car coped fine and, if anything, was overly enthusiastic about avoiding them. Mr. Parker said the system identifies and classifies objects such as pedestrians and pre-empts behavior such as jaywalking. This led to some hesitation, as the car decided how to handle each situation.

For the most part, traffic moves slowly through one-north and we didn’t reach speeds of more than about 20 miles an hour, with a few left and right turns and some lane changing. I thought the acceleration and braking could do with some refinement. It struck me that long periods reading a newspaper at the wheel wouldn’t do great things for those prone to motion sickness.

Testing a driverless car is fun if you’re a gadget freak, but after a while it feels a bit like getting on a driverless train—yes, they have those in Singapore—remarkably quickly it just feels like a part of daily life.

Our short trip through one-north was enough to see the potential in self-driving vehicles. The science has come a long way. But it looks like my human cabdriver from earlier may have his job for a while.

Write to Jake Maxwell Watts at jake.watts@wsj.com

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