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Driverless vehicles slated for use in four areas

SINGAPORE — Efforts to get driverless vehicles to hit Singapore’s roads are picking up speed, as the first four areas the Government wants to roll out this technology were unveiled: Fixed mass transport services for intra- and inter-town travel, on-demand shuttle services, freight transport, and utility operations, such as road sweeping.

A*STAR's autonomous vehicle plies the roads at one-north. Photo: Daryl Kang/TODAY

A*STAR's autonomous vehicle plies the roads at one-north. Photo: Daryl Kang/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — Efforts to get driverless vehicles to hit Singapore’s roads are picking up speed, as the first four areas the Government wants to roll out this technology were unveiled: Fixed mass transport services for intra- and inter-town travel, on-demand shuttle services, freight transport, and utility operations, such as road sweeping.

Three trials of such vehicles were announced today (Oct 12) by the committee tasked with rolling out the technology in Singapore, with the first one starting as soon as December.

From Dec 1 to Dec 14, visitors to Gardens by the Bay can try out the two Auto Riders that can take up to 10 passengers each around a 1.5km loop. The tourist attraction hopes to use these driverless vehicles to ferry visitors from the middle of next year.

The second trial involves freight transport. The Ministry of Transport (MOT) and port operator PSA today inked a memorandum of understanding to develop and test an autonomous truck platooning system, which involves a driver taking the wheel of one cargo truck, leading one or more driverless trucks through wireless communication. 

A Request for Proposals will be launched by December and prototypes will be tested along a 10km route along West Coast Highway, between Brani and Pasir Panjang terminals, over three years.

The third trial is for an on-demand transportation service on Sentosa island. Starting from January next year, the MOT, Sentosa Development Corporation and Singapore Technologies Engineering will start looking at ideas to have self-driving shuttles that visitors can call for either through their smartphones or kiosks placed across the island.

Speaking at a press conference today, MOT’s permanent secretary Pang Kin Keong, also the chairman of the Committee on Autonomous Road Transport in Singapore (CARTS), said: “It’s not the replacement of one driven car today by a driverless car of tomorrow that excites us. What we’re much more interested in is the introduction of new mobility and transportation concepts that can enhance commuter mobility, and the overall public transport experience, especially for the first- and last-mile travel.”

Ideally, this would reduce the reliance on private vehicles, and allow the saved road space to be used for other purposes, he added. Driverless technology can also relieve road congestion and alleviate manpower constraints, said Mr Pang, adding that widespread public use of such vehicles here is possible in the next 10 to 15 years.

The PSA, for instance, said driverless vehicles would reduce its manpower costs, increase productivity and ease traffic flow, as transportation is shifted to off-peak hours.

Mr Pang urged organisations with large campuses or with “transportation or mobility responsibilities” to start studying driverless technology to enhance their efficiency and productivity.

“Self-driving and new mobility concepts can also allow us to dream and imagine a very different new town of the future, with a vastly different, vastly improved living environment ... where the surface is no longer dominated by roads and carparks, by the noise and pollution of cars. Instead, it’s dominated by greenery, pedestrians, cyclists, and clean, quiet, slow-moving and self-driving pods for intra-town and first-last mile commute,” said Mr Pang.  

Many countries are studying such technology, said Mr Pang. “But for Singapore, we are driven by the fact that it is an imperative for us,” he added, citing land and manpower constraints.

While the technology is “almost there”, there are still some gaps. These include the ability to navigate in adverse weather conditions and the cost factor. “Because this is fledging technology, a lot of it is quite expensive still. For there to be public widespread deployment, cost needs to come down,” said Mr Pang. Questions had also been raised about liability issues in the event of an accident involving driverless vehicles. Mr Pang said CARTS is looking at a comprehensive liability and regulatory framework for the day-to-day use of driverless vehicles.

The Land Transport Authority’s Chief Executive Chew Men Leong noted that autonomous vehicles are far safer than human-driven cars, given the sensors mounted. “The idea is that using all these sources of information achieves a much higher level of awareness than a normal driver would have,” he said.

Experts interviewed agreed that driverless vehicles are safe.

Dr Walter Theseira, a senior lecturer at UniSIM, said: “This is unlikely to be more dangerous than a person driving it, especially given its faster response time.”

While accidents involving driverless heavy vehicles potentially present more danger, Dr Theseira said “it makes perfect sense to trial the trucks because one of the big usage applications is cargo vehicle movement”.

He added: “These are areas where the vehicles are used all the day and the initial high cost of the autonomous vehicle will be quickly paid for, and by the fact that you don’t have to hire a person to drive it anymore.”

The adoption of autonomous vehicles in the United States have caused a stir because of the drivers that were put out of jobs. Singapore, on the other hand, faces challenges in attracting truck drivers.

Dr Park Byung Joon, a UniSIM adjunct associate professor, said: “If driverless vehicles become a thing for everyone, drivers are going to become a thing of the past. There aren’t going to be taxis and buses. We’re not going to have such jobs in future.

“But we’re still far away from seeing these on the roads. It’ll happen but not so soon. It’s not something we should worry about now,” he added.

Gardens by the Bay’s director of operations Ng Boon Gee said its existing tram drivers can be trained to become visitor guides on the Auto Riders.

Around the world, at least 25 companies have ventured into autonomous vehicle technology. Google has been running trials in Texas and California, while Uber will be partnering the University of Arizona for research. In trials closer to home, robot taxis will start ferrying passengers from their homes to supermarkets in Japan from next March. 

In Singapore, A*STAR and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) started running autonomous vehicle trials at one-north since August and October respectively.

A Request for Information relating to autonomous vehicles being used for on-demand transport services and bus services was issued previously. So far, eight proposals from companies such as BMW and Uber have been submitted and trials will start at one-north in the second half of next year.

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