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Ride-hail company Grab is open to exploring self-driving car partnerships when the technology is ready

The pace at which self-driving technology is developing might pressure the company to speed up.

GrabTaxi CEO Anthony Tan
GrabTaxi CEO Anthony Tan

Grab CEO Anthony Tan says that although autonomous technology is still in its nascent stages, the company is open to working with the clear local winner in Singapore when the robot cars are ready.

At minimum, Grab would likely contribute the match-making technology it uses to pair riders with the closest drivers in an autonomous self-driving network, Tan told Recode. He declined to go into more detail, given there are not yet official plans on the books.

Grab, which is part of a four-member global ride-hail alliance, isn't the only player among them that is eyeing autonomous technology. Lyft is of course in the most advanced stages and is working with General Motors on a driverless ride-hail service. But after announcing Apple's $1 billion investment in the company, Didi president Jean Liu said the China ride-hail behemoth also has plans to explore autonomous technology.

As for Grab, which is in six countries across Southeast Asia, it's clear that the company's mapping data would be a considerable asset for any on-demand autonomous taxi service, particularly in parts of the region where some roads are still unmapped.

As part of a partnership with the World Bank, Grab has already begun to offer its mapping and traffic data to the Philippines government. The government, in turn, uses that data to monitor congestion, ensure some of its new or existing infrastructure is working properly and even guide emergency response teams to accident sites.

A ride in nuTonomy's self-driving cab
Johana Bhuiyan

In Asia, mapping can be an obstacle for autonomous technology and even ride-hailing in general. But Singapore is a well-suited test bed for self-driving ride-hail networks. For one, Singapore has a highly mapped road system. And the government is motivated to introduce autonomous technology to its already advanced transportation system.

That's because the city state is only 719.1 square kilometers, making traffic and congestion a huge priority for the government. For them, autonomous technology is a clear solution. As early as October 2015, the government even put out a call for proposals for a shared network of self-driving cars and received bids from Uber, BMW, Toyota and others.

By 2019, Singapore may be the home to a self-driving cab service. As Recode reported, nuTonomy plans to deploy thousands of its self-driving cabs in Singapore by then.

But Singapore is an anomaly in many ways. In terms of things like size, GDP and public-private sector relationships, South East Asia can vary drastically country to country and even city to city. The region's unmapped roads add another layer of issues, given that self-driving cars need 3-D maps to navigate roads.

When asked if it would be worth investing in self-driving technology if it would only be available in Singapore, Tan said it's in line with the way the company works now. Grab, and the alliance, prides itself on its hyperlocal approach. The company tailors its strategy to each city, Tan said. In some places, for example, the company offers its bike-hailing services, while the app in Singapore doesn't even list that option.

In the age of self-driving cars, then, the company would also tailor its services to each city. Where it's viable and accepted by consumers, Grab will offer a self-driving car service.

A map of a single GrabHitch ride in Grab's Singapore headquarters.
Johana Bhuiyan

Official plan or not, autonomous technology would enhance the capabilities of many of the features the company is experimenting with now, company vice president of engineering Arul Kumaravel said.

In particular, the company is experimenting with a feature that integrates with a user's calendar and prompts them to request a Grab when there is an upcoming event. If the experiment goes well, the next iteration of it would automatically request a Grab car, bike or taxi so long as the user opts in.

In yet another experiment, Grab is attempting to solve the last-mile problem by using openly available GPS data on Singapore's public transit system, called Mass Rapid Transit, to track when buses or trains will reach a specific destination. The company will then notify the number of drivers the algorithms determine will be sufficient to serve these riders.

If that experiment pans out, Grab hopes to allow users to pay for the MRT using the app, making the experience of metro to car seamless.

With autonomous technology, all of this becomes even more seamless: Cars will suddenly appear exactly when needed. And Singapore may just be the place to test it out.

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