For Karl Iagnemma, the automotive industry is a family affair. Growing up in Detroit, many of his family members worked in the auto industry. Iagnemma was an intern at General Motors for three summers, a position that provided him a partial scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he graduated first in his class with a degree in engineering.
“Cars have always been part of my DNA,” said Iagnemma, whose Cambridge- and Singapore-based startup nuTonomy Inc. announced Tuesday that it raised $16 million to continue work on its autonomous vehicle technology.
The funding was led by Highland Capital Partners LLC with additional capital from Signal Ventures and Fontinalis Partners, the investment firm started by William C. Ford, executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co.
Another important backer is the corporate investment arm of the government of Singapore, where nuTonomy is vying to operate the first fleet of self-driving vehicles in the world.
The company said it is currently testing vehicles there now and hopes to have a fleet of self-driving taxis in service in 2018.
NuTomony said it is designing a package of products that can operate an entire fleet of vehicles, from the app that hails the ride, to software that controls the vehicles remotely, dispatching them on routes and navigating among traffic on local streets.
The company was spun out of MIT, where Iagnemma is director of the Robotic Mobility Group at the school and Emilio Frazzoli, the company’s cofounder and chief technology officer, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. Iagnemma said the school has a research and technology partnership with Singapore that helped the startup gain coveted testing ground in the Asian country.
The Singapore government, Iagnemma said, has historically encouraged transportation innovation as it aims to minimize congestion in a tiny island nation that is about 31 miles at its widest.
Iagnemma noted the still-young field is crowded with small startups and corporate giants alike. His former employer, GM, recently acquired nuTonomy competitor Cruise Automation, reportedly for upwards of $1 billion.
“This is a multi trillion-dollar opportunity,” he said. “It really is something of a race to get to a good technical solution quickly.”
NuTonomy’s software is currently tested on Mitsubishi iMiev electric cars, and the company has inked a deal with French automaker Renault to provide even more research and development vehicles.