Autonomous vehicle technology might be at a nascent stage of development, but it is evolving quickly and rules need to be highly adaptable to regulate its use.
This is why the Government is amending the Road Traffic Act to better regulate trials of autonomous vehicles (AVs) here, Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament yesterday as he set out the changes to the law.
First, the law now recognises that a motor vehicle need not be one with a human driver.
Second, technology developers will have to adhere to a suite of rules when they trial such vehicles on the roads. These include time and space limits on trials, standards for the design of AVs, and requirements for developers to share data with the Land Transport Authority (LTA).
The rules can also exempt AVs and their operators from existing legislation, which mandates that a human driver must be responsible for safe use of motor vehicles on the road. But operators would have to ensure that there is liability insurance, or place a security deposit with the LTA during the trials.
These amendments were passed into law yesterday after a two-hour debate, which saw 11 MPs speak or raise questions about the Bill.
The safety of road users was a top concern, with Nominated MP Thomas Chua, Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan and Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) citing an accident last October involving a lorry and a self-driving vehicle from start-up nuTonomy as an example of what could go wrong.
Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked whether guidelines would be developed to provide clarity on how road users should react in the event of an accident with an AV.
"Who would be liable should an AV hit a pedestrian or another vehicle? Would the person or persons in the AV at the time of the accident be liable? What happens if there is no one in the AV when the accident occurs?" said Mr Yong.
Mr Ng noted that AV technology is still not mature, and accidents are "not to be unexpected" during trials. But the LTA has a framework in place to minimise the possibility of accidents. This includes requiring AVs to pass a safety assessment before they can be tested on the roads, he said. "AV developers must have robust accident mitigation plans for the trials, including having a safety driver who is trained to shift swiftly to take control of the vehicle whenever necessary," he added.
The rules governing AV trials will be in force for five years. Thereafter, the Transport Ministry could consider extending them or enacting more permanent laws.
Mr Ng said it would take about 10 to 15 years before AV technology could be deployed widely. "As this is emerging technology, the provisions will provide the flexibility needed to assess the appropriate regulatory response more quickly."