SINGAPORE: While extending the trials of autonomous vehicles (AVs) to more public roads is a necessary step in the development of the technology, some road users have questions about the implications for safety.
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced on Thursday (Oct 24) that the western part of Singapore – or more than 1,000 km of public roads – will be used to test self-driving vehicles.
Such trials are not new. Self-driving vehicles can be found in areas such as Buona Vista, Sentosa, Jurong Island and at the campuses of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and National University of Singapore (NUS). Such trials are being conducted by companies such as ST Engineering, ComfortDelGro and American firm nuTonomy.
Undergraduate Yeo Zhi Min, 19, who lives on campus, has seen driverless vehicles around NUS.
The slow speed of the vehicles and road users' unfamiliarity with them could be “quite problematic", she said.
Drivers may also think that AVs could move erratically, said Mr Chong Zhi Wei, 29, who lives in Chinese Garden.
“You don’t really know (which direction) they are going to turn, whether it’s left or right. If they do function like a proper car, then great – but even if they have to filter left or right, it’s definitely a lot slower than regular drivers,” he said.
TESTING AND SAFETY PRECAUTIONS CRUCIAL
Experts largely welcomed the expanded testing, although they acknowledged that there are potential safety issues which may need to be addressed.
President of the Automobile Association of Singapore Bernard Tay said that AVs should be "tested thoroughly" and be "100 per cent safe" before being used on public roads.
He added that programmers of AVs might face challenges in accounting for human behaviour.
“When you programme pedestrian (behaviour), you assume they will only cross the road when they are allowed to – (that) they will not jaywalk. So if you programme an AV and suddenly this jaywalker crosses its path…
“So the one who programmes (the AV) have to get into all these data to make the vehicle safe,” he said.
However, he felt that driverless vehicles would be “a good thing” in the long run. “You save labour… (You) don’t have to find space to park your car,” he said.
If a family shared an AV, they would require fewer parking spaces, and it would be a more efficient use of land in “land-scarce Singapore”, he added.
Any trials done “should be started with a lot of caution”, said Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of NTU’s Energy Research Institute.
He noted that self-driving cars should “go through various milestones of testing” before being “released in mixed traffic conditions”.
But there is no increased danger with more self-driving vehicles on the road, said NUS Associate Professor of the department of mechanical engineering and acting director of the Advanced Robotics Centre Marcelo Ang.
He added that driverless vehicles would be safer, as “the computer doesn’t get tired, it’s persistent, it’s not emotional, it doesn’t have moods, and more important, it has more sensors and instruments and they can see everything”.
“If more vehicles are equipped with this, in the environment – what that means is a safer environment… AVs also have a road test, and the road test… is very stringent. So it will make sure that the AVs are safe,” he said.
While driverless cars may not be able to predict human behaviour well, there is a danger zone programmed into the car, he added. Any pedestrians or vehicles entering the danger zone of an AV will either cause the AV to slow down or come to a complete stop.
“TREAT THEM LIKE NORMAL DRIVERS”
Motorists should just treat the AVs “like normal drivers” and get a sense of how AVs work, said Prof Ang.
“With that, the public will also have an understanding (of) what can be done to date, and what is still missing.”
Motorists can also expect lanes to be cordoned off with traffic marshals, said Prof Subodh. There could also be signs and indicators on the AVs that they are undergoing trials.
He recommended that motorists who encounter AVs on the road to “be patient”, as “they would operate initially at lower speed limits”.
“So the awareness of entering an area where an AV is being tested is of great importance.”
While Ms Lim said that she did not find driverless vehicles to be a problem personally as she is "quite a patient driver", adding indicators on driverless vehicles could be helpful.
"Maybe if they put something like this is a driverless vehicle, then ... I take into account that it is driverless and just be more patient," she said.