SINGAPORE: Driverless vehicles could be a common sight by 2030, according to industry experts. However, according to the Ministry of Transport (MOT), such vehicles could be plying Singapore's roads in 10 years' time. This comes as the country is seeking to create a long-term sustainable transport system, to address its growing land and manpower constraints.
"My own gut sense is that it has gone very fast, very far,” said Permanent Secretary for Transport Pang Kin Keong. “Not all the gaps and problems have been dealt with yet, but we are not at the beginning stages. I would say we are well past the halfway mark in terms of the maturity of the technology, to be ready for mass and public deployments on the road."
The ministry was presenting its roadmap for the future of Singapore's transport system on Monday (Oct 12), a year after a committee was formed to chart the direction for driverless vehicles.
Said Mr Pang: "For Singapore, we are driven from the fact that it is an imperative for us. We look at the land constraints we have, we look at the manpower constraints we have. We know that we have got - in the longer term - to find a more sustainable transport solution, and we think that self-driving technology opens up a whole world of new opportunities. And so we have got very specific mobility and transportation concepts in mind that we want to trial in Singapore.”
The ministry also unveiled a slew of ongoing and upcoming self-driving vehicle trials - in one-north, Gardens by the Bay, Sentosa and West Coast Highway.
The trials are part of a long-term vision of deploying self-driving vehicles and mobility concepts to enhance Singapore's land transport system. They have already started in one-north and will begin at the end of the year at Gardens by the Bay.
Visitors to the Gardens will be able to test out the Auto-Rider during a two-week trial at the end of the year - the first time the self-driving vehicle is being tested in Asia. Each vehicle has a capacity of 10 people, with seats for six passengers and standing room for four passengers or one wheelchair.
Two Auto-Riders will be deployed and ply a 1.5km-long loop at the Gardens. It will operate for two hours a day from 4pm to 6pm and is free for visitors.
For the duration of the trial, there will be a trained staff stationed in each vehicle to guide passengers and gather insights on commuter behaviour, passenger feedback and the performance of the vehicle.
After the public trial, further tests will be done before the vehicles are deployed in the Gardens.
FIRST PUBLIC ROAD NETWORK FOR TESTING AT ONE-NORTH
Autonomous vehicles trials are also ongoing at one-north - the first public road network in Singapore for the testing of driverless vehicles. A*STAR Institute for Infocomm Research and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology have been given approval to test its vehicles at the 6km-long network.
Sentosa is also embarking on a self-driving shuttle trial for on-demand point to point services around the island. Visitors will be able call these shuttles from their smartphones or via information kiosks at Sentosa.
The entire study is expected to be completed in two years, and will start from January 2016.
MOT, Sentosa Development Corporation and Singapore Technologies Engineering signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Monday for the project. Another MoU was signed between MOT and PSA, to jointly develop autonomous truck platooning technology for transporting cargo between port terminals.
This technology comprises one human-driven truck with one or more driverless trucks following behind. This will help ease the shortage of manpower in the trucking industry and raise productivity with more cargo transported with one driver. More haulage activities can also be moved to off-peak hours, which will improve traffic flow during peak periods.
A 10-kilometre test route along West Coast Highway between Brani Terminal and Pasir Panjang Terminals, will be used for trials to test this technology.
Ultimately, the ministry said these measures are part of the overall vision to develop "self-driving towns of the future".
In these towns, MRT trains will continue to be the main mode of transport for those travelling longer distances, and almost all future rail lines will be fully driverless. Larger vehicles will travel underground, freeing up more space on the surface. There will also be room for loading and unloading of goods.
Closer to ground, residents can use driverless feeder buses. This also gives operators the flexibility to deploy more buses, despite a shortage of manpower.
At the ground level, going driverless will result in more green spaces instead of carparks. Smaller vehicles can also pick up or drop off residents right in front of HDB blocks, making it easier and safer for the elderly and persons with disabilities to get home.
Permanent Secretary for Transport Mr Pang Kin Keong speaking at the MoU ceremony. (Photo: Olivia Siong)
PROS AND CONS OF DRIVERLESS VEHICLES IN SINGAPORE
Despite the benefits, some have said that driverless vehicles, like taxis for example, might eventually cost some drivers their jobs. Nonetheless, the ministry said the Government will continue to help workers.
"If you think back to 30, 40 years ago when there was no automation and a lot of it was manual labour, automation came about, robotics came about in many of the factories, what happened?
"The Government puts a lot of resources to reskill, to retool all the workers, so they had higher value jobs and better paying jobs. That must be the way we continue to stay ahead in the global competition,” said Mr Pang.
More trials for driverless vehicles are expected in the coming months.
Mr Pang said: "Self-driving vehicles can radically transform land transportation in Singapore to address our two key constraints - land and manpower. The trials will help us shape the mobility concepts which can meet Singapore's needs, and also gain valuable insights into how we can design our towns of the future to take advantage of this technology."