Imagining S'pore as a city with driverless vehicles

New exhibition showcases URA's preparations for AV future that could arrive in next 10-15 years

Some 50 years from now, there may no longer be carparks in every building.

After a person alights at his destination, his car would travel on its own to an out-of-the-way mixed-use storage hub, where it can accurately park itself just centimetres from another driverless car, thus saving space.

There, a self-dispensing ice-cream truck might move autonomously around in a food truck market served only by autonomous vehicles (AVs). There might even be a driverless car-racing track for children to while away their time in the mixed-use hub.

Welcome to Singapore's future, presented by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) at an exhibition that opened yesterday at the URA centre in Tanjong Pagar.

The exhibition, which is free and runs till March 29, showcases URA's preparations for an AV future that some studies say could arrive within the next 10 to 15 years.

The anticipated AV boom is an opportunity to reimagine how people live and work, a process that is already ongoing with new trends like work-from-home arrangements, said the agency.

And these new trends must go hand in hand with the way Singapore is designed, it added.

"AV is still a very nascent and emerging technology, but we think it will have a big impact. It depends on when the technology itself will be ready and public acceptance," said URA's group director of research and development Chiu Wen Tung.

The most optimistic industry players are predicting AV technology to be ready for widespread adoption in 10 years' time, while others are more cautious, citing as long as 50 years.

In the meantime, researchers are still struggling with how to program AVs so that they can predict human behaviour and overtake vehicles or change lanes safely.

Mr Chiu said: "We cannot be certain how the future is like, especially if it's so far into the future. But many of the trials so far give a clue of the potential possibilities of deployment of this technology in Singapore."

The technology has many possible applications. AVs have been deployed at Singapore Armed Forces camps, Sentosa, university campuses and Jurong Island, ferrying students, workers and tourists, and sweeping roads.

As early as 2016, Singapore held the world's first public trial of a "robo-taxi" service in the one-north business district. Smaller AVs have been used to deliver parcels and groceries to residents in Punggol and to office workers in Jurong.

The URA exhibition lists a host of benefits that an AV transport system could bring, chief of which is the availability of more pedestrian and green spaces.

It said that AVs are expected to reduce the space needed for parking, since they can park closer to one another with highly precise manoeuvres.

They will also be able to navigate routes more optimally and safely, reducing the number of lanes and the width of lanes on roads. These freed-up spaces could then be put to other more people-friendly uses.

"A future street layout should respond to the needs of users, prioritising walking, cycling and public transport, with AVs complementing these primary transport modes," URA said. "Streets and crossings will emphasise a people-first outcome instead of a traditional vehicle-first outcome."

In the nearer term, URA has come up with two configurations for roads that can function as interim arrangements for AVs, either segregating an AV lane so that AVs do not interfere with normal traffic function, or creating multiple levels of roads so that AVs are separated from the rest of the traffic.

Minister of State for National Development Tan Kiat How said Singapore's urban planners have always focused on ensuring that the small country's spaces can be maximised.

As with other emerging trends such as shared car, cycling and on-demand services, AV shuttles can complement the existing transport network by serving as a first-and last-mile option to connect commuters to trains and buses.

"While AV technology is promising, it is still early days," said Mr Tan at the opening of the URA exhibition. "We will study the technology carefully, conduct trials to ensure the safety and readiness of AV mobility, and plan ahead to build a future city where AVs enhance our quality of life."

Dr Graham Leedham, technical director at TUM Create, a research platform to improve Singapore's public transport, said people should not think of AVs as a distant prospect, with steps already being taken right now to kick-start their use.

"It's a gradual, incremental process but things can go much faster than you think. As the technology matures, it will spread out over more and more areas," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2022, with the headline Imagining S'pore as a city with driverless vehicles. Subscribe