Singapore will not rush into new tech for transport: Khaw Boon Wan

Visitors viewing the Volocopter unmanned air taxi transport displayed ahead of the 26th Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Singapore, on Oct 21, 2019.
Visitors viewing the Volocopter unmanned air taxi transport displayed ahead of the 26th Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Singapore, on Oct 21, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - An intelligent transport system must also be a wise system, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Monday (Oct 21).

"As a transport minister, I look beyond the technology element. Politically, what matters is that we have a transport system that is fast, safe, reliable and, very importantly, affordable for all people," said Mr Khaw at the opening of the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) World Congress in Suntec Singapore.

"It must contribute to their quality of life, and this is what matters to them most."

He was delivering his opening address to participants from over 80 countries in the first ITS congress hosted by Singapore.

Technology, he said, is a means to this end, so "any intelligent transport system must be developed and implemented wisely".

"In short, an intelligent transport system must also be wise," Mr Khaw noted.

The minister added that there is "no one-size-fits-all model" in this sphere. "For instance, what works for Denmark... may not work as well for Singapore," he said. "What works for Singapore today may not be suitable in 10 years' time."

The minister said Singapore does not "rush to be ahead of the curve, to be the first in adopting new-fangled technologies, especially for essential services like public transport".

He said while technology can transform societies, it can also divide those who are tech-savvy from the "vast majority" who are not. "Many may even find the new technology disrupting their livelihood, when they find their skills losing relevance," he said, citing ride-hailing apps such as those from Uber and Grab.

"They have raised the service level to commuters, but they have also threatened the rice bowl of taxi drivers and disrupted the incumbent taxi companies," Mr Khaw said, adding that some older commuters were also afraid that they might spell the end of street-hail taxis over time.

Mr Khaw cited technological risks to intelligent systems too. "As we make our transport systems more intelligent, we are also introducing them to new vulnerabilities such as cyber attacks," he said.

 
 
 
 

He noted the case of the rail system, which has traditionally been a "walled garden" - meaning, no information goes in or out of the system.

"With the proliferation of sensors and cloud computing, this 'walled garden' is steadily being punctured by external connections to facilitate more efficient rail operations," Mr Khaw told the audience.

"A cyber attacker can potentially take control and sabotage the most intelligent of rail systems. The risks can be mitigated, but it requires constant vigilance, costly investments and staff re-training to stay decisively ahead of the hackers."

Mr Khaw said Singapore is keeping abreast of technological advancements. "While we are not in a rush to be the first adopter, we have plugged ourselves into the latest developments," he noted.

Autonomous vehicle trials and research are being carried out here, and a pilot deployment of driverless buses and shuttles is being planned for Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District by 2022.

"I look forward to a larger scale adoption of autonomous vehicle technology in Singapore, but I think this will not be in the near future," Mr Khaw said. "New infrastructure and enablers such as dedicated lanes and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications technology will be important before we can scale up the use of autonomous vehicles."

While Singapore will not strive to be first in the transport tech race, the minister said it makes an exception for 5G cellular connection, which the Republic announced last week will start rolling out over the next few years.

Mr Khaw said he sees "great potential" in the super-fast network, which is necessary for the widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles. "In addition, I see 5G supporting our future Tuas seaport, where we are building a highly automated new generation port to leverage on the new digital economy."

More than 10,000 delegates are expected to attend the five-day ITS congress from Monday to Friday. The event features close to 200 sessions and panel discussions, 30 technical tours and demonstrations, and associated events such as the Land Transport Authority's inaugural Autonomous Mobility Summit.

Some 300 exhibitors from various countries will showcase their latest technologies in the exhibition area.