SINGAPORE: In the near future, our urban mobility landscape will include shared, autonomous transport. Just last week, the Singapore Government announced that self-driving buses and shuttles will be deployed in three towns from 2022.
Shared driverless vehicles have the potential to reshape our city. Analysts predict that driverless vehicles may account for half of all road travel by 2040.
They could decrease private vehicle ownership, congestion and air pollution while increasing safety, access and mobility. They may also reduce the need for parking spaces in prime real estate where jobs and residents tend to be, since parking no longer needs to be co-located with them.
Where road networks make up 12 per cent of Singapore’s land area, they also bring with them the potential to free up road space – spaces that can be redesigned for other uses – not just housing or commerce but also walkways, bicycle lanes and more green spaces.
ROBO-TAXIS THE MOST RELEVANT USE CASE
In cities all around the world, there is growing movement and interest in autonomous shuttle buses, driverless pods, or robo-taxis, which supplement conventional bus or rapid transit train transport. These self-driving vehicles can provide passenger mobility on-demand, similar to those provided through an e-hailing service app.
Cities are paying particular attention to first- or last-mile connectivity, since a commuter’s options right outside his or her doorstep form critical parts of their public transport experience.
Robo-taxis appear to be the most relevant use case for self-driving vehicles in urban areas to serve this need.
The vision is for these driverless vehicles to eventually provide commuters a convenient and comfortable way to connect from any doorstep to the nearest public transport node, such as a bus depot or train station, and vice versa, even though initial trials are geofenced and limited to fixed routes within smaller neighbourhoods.
In Singapore, urban and transport planners are expanding the rail network, aiming for 8 out of 10 households to be within a 10-minute walk of a MRT station by 2030. For those living outside this range, or do not have the desire or means to walk, cycle or scoot, robo-taxis can provide the missing link.
For a commuter, a ride in an air-conditioned pod can be more comfortable than walking. The price of a robo-taxi ride is also expected to be lower than a conventional taxi ride, with labour costs removed.
For car owners who make this switch, the overall cost of transportation will be lower compared to car ownership, which includes the cost of parking and vehicle maintenance. There is also no longer a need to search or cruise for parking at one’s destination.
Robo-taxis offer one more travel option that can be integrated into a seamless multi-modal journey, bringing us closer towards the possibility of Mobility-as-a-Service where subscribers pay for their mobility needs on a single platform that unites multiple transport service providers, including a combination of bike share, train and robo-taxis.
For robo-taxis to make a difference to commuters, they must cover areas under-served by existing public transport modes, promoting transport equity. As this nimbler transport mode fills the gaps in places not as well connected to the primary transport network, transport access is enhanced.
When configured to be accessible by the elderly, children or disabled, who cannot drive, they can be a transport mode for all.
HOW WILL PEOPLE REACT TO DRIVERLESS VEHICLES?
Much attention is being rightfully paid to overcome technical, regulatory and legal barriers to introducing this technology. One area of uncertainty concerns a softer side of the story – human elements.
The first concerns market acceptance. Will people ride in autonomous vehicles? Where a recent MRT collision has brought to the fore the challenges of managing transport technology, will people trust the technology?
Ridership and utilisation will partly depend on whether robo-taxis demonstrate smooth and safe operations over a range of different situational contexts.
The transition pathway will see a mix of autonomous vehicles alongside conventional vehicles sharing the roads. While robo-taxis are supposed to minimise the number of traffic accidents caused by human error, how will other road users react to these robots?
Since autonomous vehicles behave more conservatively than regular drivers, traffic accidents can result from this different and unexpected behaviour. Field testing of these vehicles in contained environments will be helpful. These robots will need some social adjustments before we trust them fully on our roads.
ADOPTION DEPENDS ON CONVENIENCE
Convenience is another key consideration in adoption – will a multi-modal journey including a ride on a robo-taxi be more attractive than a conventional taxi ride from door-to-door?
And for car owners, many of whom have families to ferry around, will it be easy enough to hail a robo-taxi, such that they give up their cars?
If cities do not achieve the targeted shifts to public transport use, despite the introduction of this new travel mode, the postulated benefits may not be fully realised.
Much work remains in the planning of operational details.
Travel demand modelling approaches can help in estimating demand, and the number of autonomous shuttle buses or smaller pods needed to fulfil peak-hour demand within a neighbourhood.
The service also needs to be designed with various commuters in mind, considering different user requirements. From planning a journey, booking a ride, taking the ride and transferring to subsequent transport modes, understanding user journeys and user-centric design thinking will help design ideal experiences and promote user acceptance.
Finally, some consideration needs to be made about the displacement of various jobs as a result of automation in transportation. Drivers are an obvious group that will be affected, and the shift away from car ownership can also affect car dealers, financiers, insurance providers, and auto workshops. Active discussion to address retraining and supporting of workers during this transition will come to bear.
As we evaluate the pros and cons of robo-taxis, one should remain agnostic about the technology, and be mindful that deploying autonomous vehicles is not the policy objective in itself.
While autonomous vehicles can potentially bring about many benefits, the primary goal in congested cities is to reduce reliance on private vehicles, and encourage the use of public transport.
Transit offerings must remain attractive and reliable, as we consider enhancements with the introduction of self-driving vehicles. Despite recent complaints about rail reliability, Singaporeans care about public transport and will continue to use it if transit options are convenient, cost-effective and reliable.
Different solutions and technologies, like autonomous vehicles, can be used to promote transit use. Investigating how commuters and stakeholders will take to new technologies will be key, since this is a critical element for successful implementation, and brings us closer towards the desired outcome of more sustainable urban mobility.
Lynette Cheah is assistant professor of engineering systems at the Singapore University of Technology and Design and an affiliate with the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. She leads a research group on Sustainable Urban Mobility, which develops data-driven solutions to reduce the environmental impacts of passenger and urban freight transport.