Public bus drivers to be trained to handle autonomous buses

Ms Elizabeth Lim (left) from SBS Transit and Ms Hamimah Rawi from Tower Transit Singapore are among the first drivers in Singapore who can take on the role of safety operators in autonomous buses. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG
An autonomous electric bus in operation at the Centre of Excellence for Testing and Research of Autonomous Vehicles at Nanyang Technological University, on March 5, 2019. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - About 100 public bus drivers will be trained to handle autonomous buses to prepare for the potential deployment of the vehicles in Singapore.

More drivers will progressively be trained as autonomous technology improves, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said on Thursday (Oct 24).

The move to train the drivers comes as a result of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the LTA and eight industry stakeholders - the National Transport Workers' Union, ST Engineering, SBS Transit, SMRT Buses, Tower Transit Singapore, Go-Ahead Singapore, Workforce Singapore, and the Employment and Employability Institute.

The LTA said: "The MOU demonstrates the commitment of all parties to work together to raise the skills and competencies of public bus captains to enable them to take on new roles when autonomous buses are eventually deployed in Singapore."

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The training programmes for drivers will be developed by the LTA together with the industry stakeholders.

One new role the drivers can be trained for is that of the safety operator for an autonomous bus.

Safety operators take over immediate control of the bus should the need arise. They are also trained to remotely monitor the operation of the autonomous bus, to ensure public safety.

(From left): Mr Tan Choon Shian, Chief Executive, Workforce Singapore, Mr Gilbert Tan, CEO, Employment and Employability Insitute, Dr Lee Shiang Long, President, ST Engineering, Mr Melvin Yong, Executive Secretary, National Transport Workers' Union, Mr Ngien Hoon Ping, Chief Executive, LTA, Mr Cheng Siak Kian, COO, SBS Transit, Mr Tan Kian Heong, President, SMRT Buses Ltd, Mr Winston Toh, MD, Tower Transit Singapore and Mr Wang Poon Liang, HR Director, Go-Ahead Singapore, at the signing of the MOU. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

The initial batch of about 100 trained drivers are expected to be deployed to operate autonomous vehicles in Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District, likely from 2022.

These three areas were identified in 2017 by the Government as places where residents and workers can take self-driving buses and shuttles for their first- and last-mile commutes, under a pilot programme.

Tower Transit driver Hamimah Rawi, 56, who now drives a public bus in Jurong, said she is looking forward to attending the new training programme once it is finalised.

"I still cannot imagine what it will be like to be in a driverless bus," she added.

In a blog post, National Transport Workers' Union executive secretary Melvin Yong said the MOU reflected Singapore's unique brand of tripartism.

He also said the union's collaborative approach with the Government and public transport operators means that it can help workers prepare for a smooth transition to an autonomous future.

The LTA said on Thursday that leveraging technologies such as autonomous and dynamically routed vehicles is key to realising its vision of having a 45-minute city with 20-minute towns, as stated in the Land Transport Masterplan 2040.

A 20-minute town is one where all door-to-door journeys to the nearest neighbourhood centre using Walk-Cycle-Ride modes can be completed within 20 minutes. In a 45-minute city, nine in 10 peak-period journeys using Walk-Cycle-Ride modes can be completed within that time.

"In the longer term, LTA will continue to work with industry stakeholders to prepare other public bus employees, such as technicians and operations personnel, to take on a range of other roles that would be essential to the deployment of autonomous buses in Singapore," the authority said.

In a speech at the MOU signing ceremony, LTA chief executive Ngien Hoon Ping noted that 15 bus drivers have been trained by ST Engineering and SBS Transit for the ongoing trial of autonomous vehicles in Sentosa.

The trial, involving a fleet of four autonomous shuttles, started in August and will end next month.

SBS Transit bus driver Elizabeth Lim, 60, one of the drivers who learnt how to handle an autonomous bus, said: "I was very scared initially because we were used to holding the steering wheel but now they told us we don't need to do so.

"But after we got used to it, it was OK... the autonomous system was quite effective."

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