Look ma, no driver

Reporter Kezia Toh in NUS’ driverless two-seater buggy. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Reporter Kezia Toh in NUS’ driverless two-seater buggy. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

The peace of a ride through a tranquil park in Jurong West is shattered as a driver blares his horn furiously.

I am in a vehicle moving at a sedate 20kmh on a single lane road, which must be torturous for most drivers.

Unfortunately for that driver, he has effectively sounded the horn at no one.

It is a Thursday morning at CleanTech Park in Jurong West and no one is at the wheel of the driverless vehicle I am riding.

It is a shuttle modified by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which traces a programmed route based on sensors, through the park.

I wave apologetically to the honking driver. Aggravation (for others) aside, my 10-minute ride feels like an old-school amusement park simulator, albeit one moving at snail's pace.

Like those kiddy rides, the vehicle's turnings are exact as though it is tracing a right-angle track when it makes a turn.

It is a novelty riding in a moving vehicle without a steering wheel or someone in control.

That probably explains why a flock of passers-by stops to stare and take photos and videos of the shuttle I am on.

While it is a novel experience, the ride does not gloss over the limitations of a driverless vehicle such as not being able to read traffic lights - the reason why the shuttle glides merrily past a red light.

However, you know its sensors are working. The videographer for this story swings his camera outside the shuttle's doors and the vehicle abruptly jolts to a halt.

This NTU model cannot yet swerve past obstacles. It stops and starts moving when the obstacle disappears.

The National University of Singapore model - converted from an electric golf buggy - swerves ably past trees, people and rubbish bins during my test ride on the campus on a Tuesday afternoon.

It works with sensors and a camera to map out the changing environment as the vehicle moves.

One interesting thing to watch is the steering wheel, which turns left or right automatically, controlled by electric signals directing the programmed route.

There are fewer control issues riding this buggy. The vehicle travels between 5 and 10kmh and students treading the footpath I am on clearly outpace me.

The NTU shuttle has standing space for eight while the NUS model is a two-seater buggy. Both are comfortable for short-haul rides.

The models are at the testing stage and are not yet ready for the open roads.

But imagine the possibilities that could come from driverless vehicles one day.

I am a clumsy driver and would happily do without the stress of driving.

Issues such as insurance and liability notwithstanding, in the future, perhaps I could be napping, chatting on the phone or having breakfast while my car drives me to my destination.

I also felt perfectly safe in the vehicles - they were stable and I was travelling at a slow pace.

Life is a highway, but when I am in a driverless car, I will stick to the small roads - thanks very much.

Kezia Toh

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