Driverless vehicles hit the road in trials around Singapore

Auto Riders will take visitors around the grounds of Gardens by the Bay from as early as December. They can each carry 10 people and are wheelchairaccessible.
Auto Riders will take visitors around the grounds of Gardens by the Bay from as early as December. They can each carry 10 people and are wheelchairaccessible. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Govt-led initiatives seeking to test tech in areas like public transport, freight operations

From as early as December, visitors to Gardens by the Bay will be able to hop on to driverless shuttles that will take them around the sprawling grounds.

The two Auto Riders can each accommodate 10 people and are wheelchair-accessible, with a motorised ramp that deploys and retracts at the touch of a button. The vehicles, which have been tested in Switzerland, are making their Asian debut here as part of a multi-agency autonomous vehicle trial.

Yesterday, the Transport Ministry signed two memoranda of understanding (MOU).

One MOU is with port operator PSA to jointly develop autonomous truck platooning technology for cargo transport between terminals. In truck platooning, several trucks move together like a train, with only a controller in the first to improve productivity. The other MOU is with Sentosa Development Corp and ST Engineering to test self-driving shuttles across Sentosa.

Meanwhile, A*Star's Institute for Infocomm Research and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology have started driverless trials in one-north, while the Nanyang Technological University has been doing the same on its campus.

Permanent Secretary for Transport Pang Kin Keong said yesterday: "Self-driving vehicles can radically transform land transportation in Singapore to address our two key constraints - land and manpower.

"The trials will help us shape the mobility concepts which can meet Singapore's needs, and also gain valuable insights into how we can design our towns of the future to take advantage of this technology."

Unlike autonomous vehicle trials elsewhere, Singapore is focusing on applying the technology to public buses, freight carriers, autonomous taxis and utility operations such as road sweepers.

In buses, the technology will solve Singapore's perennial bus driver shortage. In taxis, the technology allows for many more journeys with a smaller fleet. Such vehicles are far costlier though, but experts believe that the initial outlay will be offset by manpower savings.

A*Star executive director Lee Shiang Long said: "I'm quite confident that Singapore will be the first city to implement this new technology. This is because unlike trials in other countries, which are left pretty much to the private sector, the Government is behind the efforts here."

A*Star converted a Toyota Alphard Hybrid to run autonomously, equipping it with laser sensors that cost as much as a luxury car.

 

Elsewhere, the Land Transport Authority has received responses from eight firms to a request for information to carry out its own trial in one-north. It will evaluate the proposals, and expects to begin trials by the second half of next year.

When asked how much the Government is investing in all these efforts, Mr Pang would only say "quite a fair bit". But given Singapore's land and labour constraints, going autonomous is "a strong imperative".

European, Japanese, US and Chinese companies - including big names like Google, Bosch and Toyota - are researching in this field.

Some, like Daimler and Tesla, are expected to launch autonomous models in the next five years.

SIM University's adjunct associate professor, Dr Park Byung Joon, said: "I think what Singapore should do is to provide a test bed to attract researchers to come here.

"If not, we might be trying to re-invent the wheel."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline 'Driverless vehicles hit the road in trials around Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe