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The future of the car is driverless

SINGAPORE — A hot afternoon at the Science Centre is not typically like a scene out of Star Wars, especially not when one is seated at the controls of an ordinary golf cart.

SINGAPORE — A hot afternoon at the Science Centre is not typically like a scene out of Star Wars, especially not when one is seated at the controls of an ordinary golf cart.

But this is not a typical afternoon, and I am not in an ordinary golf cart. As the Imperial March plays over built-in speakers, the golf cart revs up and starts driving down the road by itself, its steering wheel moving independently of the two amazed journalists on board.

A scientist steps out on the road in front of us. With a dismayed recorded R2-D2 noise the golf cart comes to a stop. When the scientist moves out of danger, it starts off again.

The SMART autonomous vehicle we are riding on is the brainchild of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), working in concert with the National University of Singapore.

By fitting an ordinary golf cart with laser sensors and an onboard computer, they’ve developed a smart driverless vehicle that can drive around on its own, stopping to pick up and drop off passengers.

The SMART autonomous vehicle is on display this weekend at the Singapore Science Centre’s Science Street Fair. Its creators are showing off the prototype to introduce the public to a new mode of transportation they call Mobility-On-Demand.

They imagine a fleet of self-driving motorized vehicles that will cut down on travelling time by solving what they call the “first and last mile” problem.

“Most of your commuting time is spent going from your home to the start of the network, and from the end of the network to your final destination like your workplace,” said Dr James Fu, one of the SMART vehicle’s creators. “While most would like to drive, most would agree that you would not like to drive during peak hours. So why not let someone else—or something else—take over for you?”

The scientists at SMART and NUS imagine a fleet of automated vehicles that passengers can call upon during peak hours. Coordinating this fleet of vehicles can minimize the effects of congestion.

Furthermore, the autonomous vehicles will be a boon for those who have difficulty driving, including the elderly, the young, and the disabled.

Unlike other driverless cars that have been developed, the SMART autonomous car doesn’t rely on GPS data for navigation. “GPS data has a tolerance of 10 to 50 metres, which is not enough for urban environments,” said Dr Zuo Bingran, another of the SMART car's creators.

Instead, this car uses a mix of pre-loaded maps and live data from its sensors, so that it can navigate densely-built, heavily populated environments, like Singapore’s.

For those afraid of Hal 9000 situations, never fear: The SMART autonomous vehicle is actually much safer than human drivers.

Its two laser sensors have a vision field of 270 degrees each, compared to the mere 100 degrees of a human driver’s. It can see obstacles such as pedestrians coming up from the side of the car, which a human driver might miss.

And a computer-driven car is reliable, unlike human drivers. “Computers show no emotion, computers show no fatigue,” says Dr Fu. An autonomous car would not drive aggressively, or get distracted by a mobile phone while driving.

The widespread use of driverless cars, in fact, can cut down on the number of cars we need. Our cars spend most of their time parked in car parks, especially for working folk, says Dr Fu. “The vehicle’s not moving. In a sense, that’s a waste of resources. But if the vehicle can move by itself, then you’re not wasting the vehicle.”

With an autonomous vehicle, he says, a family of five might just need one vehicle. The father might take the car to work, but the car can then return home to send the daughter to violin lessons, or be sent on errands with the mother.

But don’t expect to see self-driving cars on our roads just yet. The scientists admit there’s a long way to go before this technology can be successfully implemented here.

But that’s not just because of technical limitations. To integrate driverless cars on the road would mean overhauling parts of how our transport system works.

“It’s not something that can be implemented in itself, it’s not self-contained,” said Dr Fu. “It will affect how transportation is seen as a whole, how people will accept it. There’s a lot of interlocking factors involved.”

That’s part of the reason why the scientists are showing off their prototype at the street fair. “It’s to raise public awareness,” said Dr Fu.

If people come to see the technology and understand how it works, over time, they will see it as an alternative to traditional modes of transport, he said.

“Unlike car manufacturers, we’re not promoting single ownership. We’re promoting a transportation system.”

The first Science Street Fair will be held at the Singapore Science Centre from Nov 8 to Nov 11. Entry to the Science Centre will be free during these four days.

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