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Cambridge startup will be first to test self-driving cars on Boston’s streets

 An autonomous vehicle, operated by nuTonomy, is driven during its test drive in Singapore.
An autonomous vehicle, operated by nuTonomy, is driven during its test drive in Singapore. Yong Teck Lim/AP

The fast-developing self-driving car industry is packed with corporate giants from economies old and new alike — from car manufacturers like Ford and Toyota to tech titans like Google and Uber.

But the first company to test an autonomous vehicle on Boston’s streets won’t be a household name. Instead, it’s a small Cambridge startup that, pending state approval, is expected to hit the roads in South Boston’s Seaport District by the end of the year.

Never heard of nuTonomy Inc.? It’s time to get familiar with it.

Founded in 2013 by a pair of MIT robotics researchers, nuTonomy doesn’t make cars. It’s a software developer that outfits other companies’ vehicles with sensors and cameras to navigate city streets. (In Boston, nuTonomy will dress up an electric car from French automaker Renault to scoot around the streets.)

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The company is backed by more than $16 million in venture capital money, the bulk of which came in a funding round announced in May and led by Cambridge-based Highland Capital Partners. Fontinalis Partners, which counts Ford chairman Bill Ford as a founder, is among the investors.

According to spokesman Eric Andrus, nuTonomy is also focused on developing fleet-management and ride-hailing systems. Those interests speak to its long-term ambition: providing driverless taxi services in cities.

It’s a model that ride-hailing leaders like Uber and Lyft are also eyeing. Some industry enthusiasts envision a future where city dwellers abandon car ownership as it becomes all the cheaper to call for a ride by removing the human labor.

It’s also a model nuTonomy is already experimenting with on the other side of the world. In August, the company began carting passengers around a designated testing area in Singapore after they booked rides online.

The program was expanded in September when nuTonomy teamed with Grab, a ride-hailing company in southeast Asia, allowing users in the testing area to book a ride through the app. That puts nuTonomy on similar footing with Uber, which is testing a self-driving car ride-hailing service on the streets of Pittsburgh.

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But don’t expect a similar service in Boston any time soon; nuTonomy chief executive Karl Iagnemma said Sunday that the company does not intend to offer ride-hailing services in Boston during the testing period.

While the Singapore vehicles are self-driving, they are not yet driverless. A human has been in the driver’s seat ready to take control if needed. That will also be the case in Boston during testing.

Andrus declined on Monday to say how many employees work at nuTonomy. The company has offices in Cambridge and Singapore. In addition to its public road test in Singapore, it has tested on closed courses in Michigan and the United Kingdom.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.