SINGAPORE: Imagine a day when you fire up an app to call for a driverless bus – powered by electricity - to pick you up from the MRT station and send you to your home or office.
That’s the ideal transport vision for Singapore Goldbell CEO Arthur Chua painted when Channel NewsAsia spoke to him on Friday (Jun 8).
Goldbell – traditionally a local small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) with decades of experience in leasing and distribution of commercial vehicles like lorries and trucks – is hoping to play an integral role in fulfilling the first- and last-mile parts of this transport system, Mr Chua said.
The company was founded in 1980 by Mr Chua's father and grandfather and was the exclusive distributor for Komatsu forklift before it expanded into the distribution and leasing of other commercial and industrial vehicles. It also now has a financial services arm to help other businesses.
The 36-year-old Goldbell CEO is also co-founder of local start-up Ministry of Movement, and he shared that it has been working on an algorithm that dynamically matches bus shuttles with people who request for rides since 2016. “The idea is for one central command system to tell vehicles where to move,” he explained.
These are buses that do not run on fixed routes, but will shift their routes according to demand, he added.
There were just four people working on the algorithm at the start, and they had to cull publicly available datasets from avenues such as data.gov.sg to assess commuter movements and, from there, create a simulation engine to see if their idea would work.
Once this was done, Ministry of Movement decided it was robust enough to launch a public, commercial service called Swat in August 2017 “with real buses, for paying passengers”, said Mr Chua.
Commuters have the option of pre-booking Swat rides a day in advance or pre-booking on the same day but 30 minutes in advance, or for the last-minute passenger, request for one via its chatbot, according to its app store description.
“Day 1 was a bitter-sweet experience: We had 14,000 downloads (of the Swat app) and requests, but we were overwhelmed by the demand. We just couldn’t meet it,” the CEO recounted, adding the service is available today but in a trial setting.
That said, the initial experience reinforced their suspicions that there is demand for the service they are offering, and it also caught the attention of the Transport Ministry as it wanted to know how this on-demand service would work here, he added.
Another milestone was reached this February when Ministry of Movement was one of two companies awarded contracts worth more than S$466,000 to conduct the first phase trials for on-demand bus services. Mr Chua said it clinched the tender over more established players like Grab, which collaborated with the Government Technology Agency to launch its fixed-route on-demand GrabShuttle offering.
Today, there are about 25 people working to finetune the Swat service as it prepares to launch the trial service in the fourth quarter of this year, and Mr Chua said it is working with SBS Transit on the operations side of things.
This includes coming up with the driver training curriculum so that drivers would be able to adapt to real-time demand, changing their travel routes according to passengers’ requests. How drivers respond when they see multiple requests for last-minute insertions is one issue being looked at, Mr Chua elaborated.
“We’re finetuning the driver experience to avoid such a situation,” he said, but declined to reveal more details as part of its agreement with the Land Transport Authority (LTA).
SELF-DRIVING IS THE FUTURE
While Ministry of Movement is looking to get the drivers up to speed with this on-demand system, Mr Chua said the vision is ultimately for self-driving vehicles to take over.
After all, a computer instructing another computer on where to go would be the most efficient way of directing traffic resources and would make the whole transport ecosystem less reliant on human labour, he explained.
This is in line with the direction Singapore is heading.
Mr Chris Leck, director of the Futures Division at Ministry of Transport, shared during a panel session at this week’s Innovfest Unbound that the manpower crunch will increasingly have an impact as many Singaporean bus drivers are in their fifties and above, and will soon leave the workforce.
Goldbell, and by extension Ministry of Movement, is not standing still in advancing the development of such autonomous driving systems.
In April this year, they signed a deal with China’s Haylion Technologies to build Futian Free Trade Zone into a demonstration area for an intelligent network and smart commuting. An on-demand bus service is expected to be rolled out by the end of this year, according to a report by Shenzhen Daily.
Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a Facebook post on Apr 27 that he witnessed the signing of this collaboration, and shared a video of his experience riding the autonomous bus.
Mr Chua pointed out that while technology is an enabler, it is not the key.
“We think that the key is to bridge today’s technology with the actual conditions in a particular market (to effect change),” said the CEO.
This, he said, is what will make the transport vision he described a reality in Singapore.