Driverless bus trials draw 320, including curious passengers

Japanese housewife Satoko Nemoto, 43, boarding a driverless bus at Haw Par Villa last Wednesday. The Haw Par Villa round-trip route is one of two trials here.
Japanese housewife Satoko Nemoto, 43, boarding a driverless bus at Haw Par Villa last Wednesday. The Haw Par Villa round-trip route is one of two trials here. ST PHOTO: NATALIE TAN

Ms Satoko Nemoto, a 43-year-old Japanese housewife who has been in Singapore for only three months, travelled by MRT all the way from her home in Pasir Ris to Haw Par Villa just to ride on a driverless bus operated by SMRT.

She said the bus ride was quiet and smooth, and she especially liked that the bus was fully electric and, thus, eco-friendly.

She was among a total of 320 people who have taken the driverless buses at Haw Par Villa and on Jurong Island since they were launched last month, with some specially making the trip to the two areas for the ride.

Most found it a pleasant enough experience, saying the buses were not as slow as they had expected and the presence of a driver at the wheel in case of emergencies reassured them.

There remained concerns, however, over safety issues.

ST Engineering, together with SMRT and SBS Transit, on Jan 25 launched Singapore's first trials, requiring people to pay fares for these bus rides on two routes.

The Haw Par Villa route is about 40 cents for a round trip, while the fare for the Jurong Island route is $2. The rides, which operate only on weekdays, have to be booked and paid for via an app.

The trials aim to gain data that could eventually see these buses rolled out across Singapore commercially, and are set to give Singapore's current edge in the automated vehicle industry a further boost.

The trials will last until April 30.

Industry watchers have said the technology is at least five to 10 years from being rolled out more broadly, and those developing the technology have said a realistic target would be to use these vehicles as last-mile connections between destinations that are not as well connected, and MRT stations and bus stops.

Mr Lim Kah Ann, 52, who used to work in the IT industry, was curious enough to make his way to Haw Par Villa to try what in the past was the stuff of science fiction.

"I've been looking into this area and I want to know what the technology is, how it has progressed so far," he said. "It is still in its infant stages and, at 25kmh, is quite safe. I think Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, are receptive to new technology, as long as their safety concerns are addressed."

He noted that it is still unclear who will take responsibility if an accident were to happen.

Engineer Wee Ming Xiao raised the possibility of the system's vulnerability to terrorist attacks. He believed that the buses have gone through rigorous testing and appropriate safety measures have been put in place, but said he wants concerns over hacking to be addressed.

He found the bus trip smooth, saying: "I would have thought that it was a normal shuttle service, if I were not told that it was an automated vehicle."

Others suggested an emergency button to deal with unforeseen circumstances.

Mr Ye Jun, 27, a compliance officer working on Jurong Island who has taken the ride seven times, is more practical.

He said the bus trial fills a gap on Jurong Island's transport system, as he previously had to carpool to get from his workplace to the foodcourt. "The company's canteen does not have many choices. This service provides options for my lunch."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2021, with the headline Driverless bus trials draw 320, including curious passengers. Subscribe