Steering Singapore towards a driverless future

In land scarce, densely-packed Singapore, driverless cars can help free up road space and improve productivity, among other benefits. But many uncertainties must be addressed before this technology can become mainstream.

driverless buggy
Mr Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport, on an autonomous golf buggy developed by SMART, with Prof. Emilio Frazzoli, Lead Investigator of SMART Future Urban Mobility. Image: Future Cities Laboratory

Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology holds “transformative potential” for Singapore’s transport system, and the city-state is exploring this with a new initiative that tests the use of driverless trucks in its ports. 

Speaking at the opening of the CREATE Future Mobility Symposium at the National University of Singapore on July 8, Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary for Transport, announced that the Ministry of Transport will be trialling ‘truck platooning’ technology to test its suitability in moving containers between different port terminals. 

This concept involves one truck with a driver, which is followed by a convoy of three or four driverless ones. The solution reduces manpower reliance and increases productivity, which “will benefit Singapore’s logistics sector which has been facing a shortage of drivers,” said Pang.

Transport experts worldwide have noted that AVs have the potential to reduce the number of cars on the road and shrink space needed for roads and carparks, if deployed in cities in specific ways.

The International Transport Forum at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, has found that if a fleet of driverless cars functioned as on-demand taxis which are shared simultaneously by several commuters, it could remove nine out of every 10 cars in a city with good public transport infrastructure without impacting the level of service for commuters.

The study, which carried out its modelling based on traffic data from Lisbon, Portugal, assumed that driverless cars - whether shared by many users simultaneously or used by individual commuters like an on-demand taxi-service - could replace all car and bus rides in a city, but deliver the same number of trips as today’s fleets.

In all cases examined, it found that self-driving cars completely removed the need for on-street parking, which could free up as much as 210 football fields worth of space in a city as big as Lisbon.

Pang acknowledged that the government’s intention is not to replace a driven car with a driverless one but to explore  AV technology in shared or public transport, “bringing new forms of mobility for the masses with the convenience of private transport”. 

Many of Singapore’s trains already operate on driverless technology, and the government is also interested in trialling the use of AVs on selected routes in some Singapore neighbourhoods where users can summon an autonomous vehicle though mobile applications and travel short distances in them, Pang shared.

In addition to easing traffic congestion, AVs can also deliver “immense benefits” to businesses, said Paul Tan, director of the ST Engineering - Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Corporate Laboratory.

The growing use of AVs will bring with it a demand for new skills and technologies in areas such as car construction, software systems and maintenance.

This will create new job opportunities in fields such as engineering, said Tan, adding that the  land that is freed up from parking space can also support new community-oriented businesses such as restaurants and cafes. 

Let us not only set a target of a fully driverless society, but put AVs on the road and understand and solve the challenges together.

Ho Kei-Leong, senior scientist, Energy Research Institute @ NTU

Ho Kei-Leong, senior scientist, Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERIAN), added that the rise of AVs would also inspire a shift in the automobile industry from individual ownership to one where consumers pay to share cars, and pay for mobility as a service.

Self-driving cars would be especially suitable where public transport or taxis were not viable options, said Tan. This could include situations where commuters lived far away from bus or train stations or had to carry heavy items onto public transport.

Poor weather can also make it difficult to hail a taxi in Singapore, and drivers may not always be willing to go to a customer’s destination.

Here, AVs could be summoned on demand to get people from their homes to the nearest major transport nodes, or even send them to a nearby destination, he said.

“It is important to examine if a car-sharing model of AVs can address some of those needs, and transform people who are on the borderline of wanting to own a car to switch to public transport,” said Tan. “We may not convince everyone, but if some make the switch, we have made good headway,” he said.

The rise of driverless vehicles would also be disruptive to the insurance industry, which would have to reconsider how they insure driverless cars in light of uncertainties about who is liable if an AV with a human occupant gets into an accident, he added.

The grey area around insurance was one of many issues related to the safety, reliability and appropriate use of AVs which need to be ironed out before they can be rolled out on a city-wide scale, said experts.

Tan noted that it was important to differentiate between readiness of AV technology, and the broader system that it was needed to support it.

“A lot of companies say that we will see 100 per cent AV penetration in society by 2026,” he noted, but many questions about safety and liability have yet to be answered.

Just as the car industry took many years before reliable statistics on the safety levels of features like seat belts and cruise control were available, AVs will also need to undergo much more testing, he said.

Testing AVs in low-risk environments such as parks, airports, gardens, and zoos, where traffic is light and slow, is a good way to build up public confidence in AVs. Tan echoed Pang’s recommendation that AVs in Singapore would be ideal for short-distance, on-demand travel in residential neighbourhoods.

But to work in the Singapore context, they would need to function safely even in heavy downpours, which can compromise the radar or camera technology that AVs rely on to move safely through a city, said Tan. This is a key research area his laboratory is working on, he added.

Meanwhile, ERIAN is working on ways to make AVs even more efficient by exploring a feature where electric driverless vehicles can automatically drive to a charging station when running low on power, shared Ho.

Emilio Frazzoli, lead investigator at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) future urban mobility programme, noted that as efforts by governments and researchers to scale up AVs grow, everyone should keep in mind that fully substituting human drivers with AVs need not necessarily be the end goal.

“It will take a long time before cars can do everything that human drivers can do,” he said. But we don’t need to get to that point before deriving value out of AVs. For example, a car that could self-drive in heavily congested traffic while allowing users to control the vehicle on long stretches of highways would still be an improvement, he explained.

ERIAN’s Ho seconded this, saying: “I do not think that a fully autonomous society will not happen in my lifetime. But in certain use cases, it will.”

“Let us not only set a target of a fully driverless society, but put AVs on the road and understand and solve the challenges together,” he said.

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