SINGAPORE: Singapore’s first driverless truck made its debut at Jurong Island on Tuesday (Oct 24).
Belgian logistics company Katoen Natie is piloting the autonomous vehicle at US oil giant ExxonMobil’s integrated manufacturing hub.
It will be used to transport products between the company’s packaging and intermediate storage facilities, clocking in a distance of around 8km per round trip.
This comes as part of a move aimed at overcoming the difficulties in hiring truck drivers in Singapore, and the truck could soon be deployed on public roads.
The Belgian firm will pilot the use of the first truck 24 hours a day and seven days a week under a six-month trial.
If successful, 11 more trucks will be added to make up a fleet of 12 that will be able to move 3 million tonnes of cargo annually (each truck can move 250,000 tonnes of cargo).
Each movement between the plant and storage yard will involve the truck towing a 15.2-metre flatbed consisting of more than 20 pallets, which the cargo will be loaded on.
Various safety measures will also be implemented.
These include demarcated speed zones with regulated speed controls built into the vehicle, the installation of key signs on roads within the facility and on the truck, as well as a safety bumper that triggers an emergency stop when it comes into contact with objects.
The truck’s deployment on Jurong Island is the second phase of Katoen Natie’s autonomous truck project, which will see a General Packet Radio System (GPRS) replacing transponders, meaning that the vehicle now navigates by satellite.
The first stage of the project saw the trucks ply a fixed route in an enclosed area on Jurong Island via transponders installed under the road – similar to the function of signalling systems in trains that help them to communicate with the tracks.
The trucks will go on public roads in the final phase of the project.
Katoen Natie said the driverless trucks can bring substantial cost savings, improve productivity and address the challenge of finding truck drivers.
Mr Koen Cardon, CEO of the Belgian logistics firm, said: "Normally you need about four drivers for one truck; they will now be replaced by one supervisor who is working from the remote station, so that is a massive improvement in terms of productivity."
"We see a growing shortage of drivers, young people are not choosing a career in driving a truck and in Singapore; we see the population of drivers – a lot of them are aging," he said.
These trucks are examples of how the industry "continues to adopt automation to improve worker productivity", said Mr Robert Johnston, manufacturing director at ExxonMobil’s Singapore chemical plant.
Meanwhile, Frederic Giron, vice-president and research director at Forrester Research agreed with the benefits autonomous vehicles bring, but also highlighted some safety concerns.
"I expect them to be extra careful and to run a huge amount of tests before they actually unleash these robots on the roads. That’s because if there is an accident, that will set the industry back quite a bit."
Mr Damian Chan, executive director for energy and chemicals at the Economic Development Board, said: “The transformation of our industry cannot happen without a well-trained and future-ready workforce.”
Katoen Natie's project is one of several involving autonomous vehicle technology initiatives in Singapore, as the country pushes ahead to roll out driverless vehicles from 2020.
The Land Transport Authority is set to deploy driverless buses on public roads by late 2020.
Port operator PSA Corporation will also run road trials of a truck platooning system, where a human-driven truck leads a convoy of driverless ones via wireless communication.