SINGAPORE: The entire western part of Singapore will become a testing ground for autonomous vehicles (AVs), under plans unveiled by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) on Thursday (Oct 24).
The expanded testbed - which will include areas such as Woodlands, Bukit Merah and Choa Chu Kang - will see more than 1,000km of public roads opened up to the testing of such self-driving vehicles.
This expansion will allow organisations to progressively test these vehicles in a wider range of traffic scenarios and road conditions, LTA said.
In comparison, the current largest testing site in the Buona Vista area has only about 70km of roads available for the testing of AVs.
The expanded testing ground will encompass existing testbeds at Buona Vista, Sentosa, Jurong Island as well as the Nanyang Technological University and neighbouring CleanTech Park.
Among the companies currently testing AVs in these areas are ST Engineering, transport giant ComfortDelGro and American firm nuTonomy.
LTA said the move is a response to industry feedback that a more varied test environment will help accelerate the development of autonomous technology.
"This will support the robust testing of AVs’ capabilities to provide inter-town services and longer-haul journeys in a safe manner, and pave the way for the planned pilot deployment of AVs in the early 2020s," it added.
The expansion of AV trials will be done gradually over the next few years in a "small-scale, incremental manner", with all testing subject to LTA approval.
LTA also said that grassroots and community leaders would be informed if there are plans to conduct such trials in their areas.
READ: Singapore’s first on-demand driverless shuttle buses to ferry passengers around Sentosa from Aug 26
Any new trials will begin in a "limited manner within a small area", said the authority, adding further expansions in trials will only be allowed if the AVs pass stringent tests. Public safety, LTA highlighted, will continue to be the "top priority" in these trials.
Vehicles will have to go through a thorough safety assessment before they are allowed on the roads, and must have a safety driver on board who can take over the wheel in case of emergencies.
They must also have third-party liability insurance, and display prominent decals and other markings to allow other road users to identify them as autonomous vehicles.
The move was announced on Thursday by Senior Minister of State for Transport Janil Puthucheary at the opening of the Autonomous Mobility Summit, held in conjunction with the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress.
AVs have been tested on the roads here since 2015. And in the early 2020s, a trial on the use of driverless shuttles to ferry passengers in three areas - Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District - is expected to begin.
In February, a report by KPMG ranked Singapore top in Asia and second in the world after the Netherlands in its readiness to adopt AVs.
The consulting firm's annual Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index ranked 25 countries in areas such as policy and legislation, as well as technology and innovation.
PUBLIC ACCEPTANCE KEY TO AV ADOPTION
Speaking at the event, Dr Puthucheary said investment in AVs has grown in recent years, with research firm Pitchbook reporting more than US$10 billion in venture capital financing invested in the sector last year - up from less than US$1 billion in 2013.
Singapore is "most excited" by the shift in AV research to larger capacity vehicles such as buses and trucks, he said, adding that autonomous shuttles have the potential to "radically transform mobility" by allowing for more efficient on-demand transport.
Public acceptance is key to the widespread adoption of AVs, he added, though he noted this could easily be eroded by accidents involving the vehicles.
The industry must work together with the authorities to understand what the safety challenges are and introduce best practices and regulatory frameworks that strike a balance between innovation and safety, he said.
Aptiv Autonomous Mobility chief scientist Dr Emilio Frazzoli told reporters the expansion of the testing area would allow Aptiv to demonstrate its AVs potential for commercial services here.
To ensure safety, the firm is using what it terms "structured AI" (artificial intelligence) which uses accumulated data and experience to allow its vehicles to handle unforeseen circumstances.
"Opening up the western area for testing gives us the opportunity to explore moving closer to residential areas," said ST Engineering land systems president Dr Lee Shiang Long, adding this is a step forward in allowing the company to deploy a fleet of autonomous buses.
The company - which will test two driverless buses able to carry 80 passengers each on Jurong Island by the middle of 2020 - hopes to be able to expand its trials to other areas in the west by the end of next year, he said.