Test fleet of driverless taxis to hit roads next year

Test fleet of driverless taxis to hit roads next year
Delphi will begin testing its autonomous cars in Singapore. Photo: Delphi
On-demand self-driving cars to be tested at one-north; possible use in towns if trial successful
Published: 3:45 PM, August 1, 2016
Updated: 5:48 AM, August 2, 2016

SINGAPORE — Commuters here could be greeted by driverless vehicles that they can book using a smartphone app in the next few years, putting Singapore among the first on the world map.

Trials for such on-demand services by autonomous vehicles (AVs) will start in the one-north testbed this year, following partnership agreements the Land Transport Authority (LTA) signed with Delphi Automotive Systems and nuTonomy on Monday (Aug 1).

“If these trials prove successful, the projects would be developed into full-scale mobility solutions for towns in Singapore ... commuters will be able to summon autonomous shuttles or pods using their smartphones, and the shuttles or pods will bring them in air-conditioned comfort from point to point, for example, from their doorsteps to the train stations,” said the LTA in a press release.

In August 2014, when the Government announced its venture into AV technology, it had unveiled a seemingly fantastical vision of a completely car-free town and residents taking “personalised MRTs” in the form of driverless pods running underground from under their block to public transport nodes.

While there have been trials to develop prototypes or test their viability, the latest agreements pave the way to realise the vision of driverless vehicles providing first-and-last mile and intra-town services.

Both companies were bullish about when commuters could have a taste of their services.

Singapore-based startup nuTonomy’s co-founder Emilio Frazzoli said the first “limited commercial deployment” will begin by 2018, where it expects to have a fleet size of 75. “It’ll not be Singapore-wide, it’ll be at certain locations,” he said, adding that it targets island-wide deployment by 2020.

The company has been conducting trials at one-north with its Mitsubishi i-MiEV and touts its technology, which includes software for AV navigation, smartphone-based ride hailing, fleet-routing, and remote control of a vehicle.

Delphi, on the other hand, expects their vehicles to be commercially-viable by 2019, with a fleet of 40 to 50 vehicles in Singapore within one year.

Mr Glen de Vos, the UK firm’s vice-president, said: “The next three years is going to be about making sure the technology can work, the whole eco-system is functional. The next phase is moving towards commercialisation.

Delphi has been testing its self-driving technology in the United States, where its Audi SQ5 prototype drove from San Francisco to New York almost fully autonomously last year. LTA chief executive Chew Men Leong, however, was more cautious about the timeframe.

Speaking to reporters after the signing ceremony, Mr Chew said: “Right now, I think we are at the very beginning stage, so I think it’ll still be quite a few years. Do allow us to work with our partners to bring these technologies to test for deployment. I think you will have to allow it to evolve.”

These two trials were culled from eight proposals the authorities received from a Request for Information exercise for mobility-on-demand driverless technologies in June last year.

Another three trials were announced last October, looking into driverless vehicles ferrying visitors around Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa Island, and an autonomous truck platooning system. The Request for Proposal for the latter closed on Monday.

Safety concerns over driverless vehicles came to the fore again in May, after a Tesla Model S crashed in Autopilot mode in Florida and its driver died. It was the first fatality involving self-driving vehicles, and Tesla has since traced the fault to a technical failure in the automatic braking system.

In an interview with Forbes on Monday, Mr De Vos said its AV technology, unlike Tesla’s, features multi-modal sensing with lidar, cameras, short- and long-range radar, inertia sensors, and communications systems that can function in extreme weather conditions. These tell the AV where other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians are in relation to it.

Still, National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der-Horng said the timelines set by the companies would depend on how technology evolves.

UniSIM senior lecturer Park Byung Joon noted: “As of today, no company is ready to put a fully autonomous taxi service on the streets ... Right now, the big concern is how people and machines interact ... the system isn’t perfect yet.”

The current legal framework is also lacking, pointed out Dr Lee. “Whose responsibility is it when there are accidents or violations? Without addressing these issues properly, it can’t take off, and 2019 is only 2.5 years away. In terms of legislation, are we able to meet the timeline?”

Meanwhile, the LTA, JTC and Nanyang Technological University launched a new centre and testbed at Cleantech Park to develop certification processes for driverless vehicles before they are allowed to be integrated with existing road traffic.

Mr Chew added: “With the establishment of (the centre), Singapore has the potential to take the lead in the setting of regulatory stands to test and certify self-driving vehicles in an urban setting.”

He also said that the centre will draw local and international companies to be certified for their driverless vehicles, and then trial and deploy them.