Challenges remain, but Singapore is pushing ahead with efforts to be a leading player in autonomous transport.
By Annabelle Liang
Last August, tech start-up nuTonomy became the world’s first company to offer invite-only driverless taxi rides here in Singapore. The MIT spin-off company followed this landmark achievement a month later by announcing a partnership with ride-hailing company Grab that aims to make driverless rides available to the wider public.
Driverless vehicles operated by nuTonomy have been travelling around a designated circuit within the one-north district since 2015, as part of an autonomous vehicle (AV) trial. The circuit has almost doubled in length to some 12km since the start of the trial.
The high-profile initiative is just one of Singapore's many efforts to use artificial intelligence (AI) in the transport sector. Last year, the Government unveiled plans to introduce such technology to mass transport services for intra- and inter-town travel, on-demand shuttle services, freight transport, and utility operations such as road sweeping.
This rising buzz of activity reflects Singapore's efforts to become one of the leading players in a global shift towards autonomous transport.
Benefits for society
Novelty aside, the emergence of autonomous vehicles will result in a host of benefits for the country, beyond just the financial. These range from greater fuel efficiency and reduced road congestion to helping relieve demands on labour and land.
“Autonomous vehicles are fast on its way to becoming a reality on our roads...They can enhance the efficiency and convenience of our land transportation system. Thus, it is important that we do not impede their growth as some cities have done," said Singapore's Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng in Parliament in February this year.
More significantly, experts believe that AV could also save lives by reducing the number of accidents on the road. A study by US-based non-profit Eno Centre for Transportation showed that if 90 per cent of the cars on American roads were driverless, the number of accidents would fall from 5.5 million to 1.3 million a year, and road deaths from 32,400 to 11,300.
As driverless vehicles are designed to optimise efficiency, they would also boost fuel efficiency and, as a result, reduce carbon emissions. A study by consultants McKinsey estimated that the adoption of autonomous cars could reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 300 million tons per year.
Meanwhile, the elderly and disabled persons, such as the blind may, finally have a chance to "drive" independently with an autonomous vehicle, improving their quality of life significantly.
A tricky road ahead?
Despite the enormous potential of autonomous transport, there are still issues to be sorted out. On the ethical front, some have questioned who would be liable in an accident involving a vehicle with no driver. And while regulations around the world have focused on physical safety, far less has been said on the issues of privacy and cybersecurity.
Autonomous vehicles require constant real-time communications between their users and the environment around them. The data collected in this process can include personal details such as location and driving habits that are valuable to marketers.
Even now, certain cars feature advanced sensors that can determine if a child is on board. Such data can be used by retailers to push kid-friendly offers to the parents who are in the vicinity, for instance. Meanwhile, research has shown that vehicle controls are potentially vulnerable to hacks if there are inadequate security measures in place.
"We are a long way from securing the non-autonomous vehicles, let alone the autonomous ones," said Stefan Savage, computer science professor at the University of California-San Diego, in MIT Technology Review last year.
A Global Race
Singapore is jostling with other countries to take the lead in the AV space, with at least 25 companies in the race. Google has been running trials in Texas and California, even as fellow tech giant Uber acquired self-driving trucking company Otto in August.
Closer to home, Japanese car maker Nissan has been testing a prototype AV since 2013, while the Korean government granted a temporary license plate to its first driverless car, a Hyundai Genesis, in March 2016.
Despite the progress, Minister Ng reckons that it could take 10 to 15 years for the technology to be widely deployed here. “As AV technology is not yet mature, during trials, accidents are not to be unexpected. LTA will, therefore, put in place a robust regulatory framework to minimise the possibility of accidents,” he said at a press conference in February this year, according to Channel NewsAsia.
Progressively, he added, the government will put in place programmes to help Singaporeans who drive for a living, acquire new skills, and take on higher value-added jobs in an AV world.