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nuTonomy CEO Reveals 'Dirty Little Secret' of Autonomous Cars

by Justin Tejada
When new technologies are in their infancies, there are usually a large number of companies looking to get in on the action. As industries mature, however, the businesses that are most successful in the space expand their market share and the overall number of players shrinks.

Karl Iagnemma, co-founder and CEO of AV software company nuTonomy, believes that the contraction in the autonomous vehicle space may be less than in other tech markets.

Iagnemma explained his position in a recent interview with Forbes. He spoke about the challenges of developing globally effective autonomous vehicle software and how those challenges can impact companies competing in the self-driving car space. His idea, essentially, is that the legal, geographic and cultural differences between various regions make it unlikely that any single company will be first to market in more than a handful of those regions.

"One of the dirty little secrets I would say, is that the software today is pretty city- or country-specific," Iagnemma told Forbes.

"I think we sometimes think that once one company gets the technology right then overnight we'll have autonomous cars on the road in every major city worldwide," he continued. "But in fact that's not the case. It's going to be a city-by-city, country-by-country rollout of this technology, which is going to take some time."

The CEO of the Boston-based company listed a few reasons why translating self-driving car software from one locale to the next would require adjustments, including differences in traffic laws and the varying physical appearance of road markings and signage. A dilemma that would require more nuanced problem-solving, however, is cultural differences.

"In Singapore drivers generally obey the rules, but the attitude around pedestrians is actually quite different," he said. "It's culturally different. People drive safely, but it's not the same deference shown to pedestrians."

An appeals court in Singapore ruled last year that a pedestrian legally crossing the street was "15% responsible" for being hit by a car. While that is an extreme example, it illustrates how unwritten cultural norms can impact traffic patterns. The minimal space between automobiles in Beijing or New York City traffic would be seen as acts of aggression in more low-key cities.

"The fact that there are so many regional-specific elements at play, what that means is I think we're going to see the emergence of multiple winners per region," said Iagnemma.

Once the director of MIT's Robotic Mobility Group, Iagnemma joined co-founder Emilio Frazzoli in launching nuTonomy in 2013. The company has partnerships with Lyft, Peugeot and graphics chip maker Nvidia. It launched a self-driving taxi program in Singapore with Peugeot earlier this year. Between his leadership role at an innovative AV company and his reputation as a thought leader in robotics, Iagnemma is worth listening to. If he foresees something to be a challenge for self-driving technology, then it almost certainly will be so.

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