Little red bot: the future of autonomous vehicles in Singapore

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Jan 1, 2018

Singapore has always been known to be a country on the cutting edge of technology, especially when it comes to the adoption of new technologies.

In our country’s infancy, a world-class rail system was one of the government’s top priorities to transport a rapidly burgeoning population. And so, in November 1987, the North-South Line of our Mass Rapid Transit system, or MRT, opened its gantries for the first time.

In early 2013, Singapore became one of the first countries outside of the United States to adopt the car-sharing service Uber, hot on the heels of its Malaysian counterpart Grab.

As such, with the new frontier of mobility being the rise of autonomous vehicles (AVs), it only follows naturally that our country be one of the first to integrate them as a mobility solution.

Why does Singapore need to adopt autonomous vehicles?

A visitor looks at a prototype of Audi’s autonomous Elaine concept car at the 67th International Motor Show Germany in September last year. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

While the thought may never have crossed your mind before, Singapore is one of the world’s leading developers of autonomous vehicles.

As a tiny country strapped for road and land space, adoption of autonomous vehicles into the mainstream is one of the top priorities for the government.

As mentioned in previous articles, autonomous vehicles free up land space in many ways. For one, with their ability to park themselves outside city limits, parking garages and open-air car parks can be repurposed into living and working spaces.

Furthermore, existing roads can be narrowed to make room for expanded sidewalks or communal spaces, as autonomous vehicles use road space with optimal efficiency. This simultaneously increases space for development while minimizing traffic congestion – potentially nullifying an increasingly serious problem plaguing Singapore.

Finally, with Singapore’s ageing population, autonomous vehicles would provide a much-needed means of mobility for the elderly incapable of driving.

It is no wonder, then, that the Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of AVs – NTU (Cetran) was set up last August as a joint venture by the JTC Corporation, the Land Transport Authority and Nanyang Technological University.

As there is no existing international standard for the testing of self-driving vehicles, the primary goal of Cetran is to establish one.

Why is it important to establish an international standard?

An autonomous Delphi-modified Audi SQ5 going through a rain simulator at the Cetran test centre. PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

An internationally-recognised standard would help governments all over the world establish the criteria for an autonomous vehicle to be road-legal in their own countries.

This would also give vehicle manufacturers specific standards to meet when designing their vehicles. This would help clear up any potential legal complications, in the event of any accidents involving autonomous vehicles.

Governments all over the world are recognising the importance of establishing this common standard and following Singapore’s lead.  In September, Cetran and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) agreed to collaborate in autonomous vehicle research, in order to accelerate the safe introduction of AVs in both Singapore and the Netherlands.

Their collaboration is focussed primarily on improving the operational safety and security of autonomous vehicles. To do so, TNO uses a testing methodology called Streetwise. Streetwise is a scenario-based testing system using data from real-life occurrences, to test how well autonomous vehicles will react to difficult traffic situations.

So will I be able to take an autonomous vehicle anywhere?

An A*Star autonomous vehicle navigates the roads of Mediapolis at a Ministry of Transport demonstration. PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

That all depends on how quickly legislation evolves. As of right now, autonomous vehicles are only allowed on public roads in very specific areas.

In July 2015, the LTA established the first AV trials on public roads. At the time, the route was only 6km long, and was confined entirely to the one-north area. This was doubled last September to 12km. After successful trials, this was finally expanded in June this year to 55km, and allowed autonomous vehicles to pass through residential estates for the first time.

This 55km area encompasses areas of Buona Vista and Dover, the National University of Singapore, and Singapore Science Park 1 and 2.

Autonomous vehicles are also active in several self-contained areas, such as Gardens by the Bay, and the Chinese and Japanese Gardens. Gardens by the Bay, for instance, uses 10-person autonomous shuttles known as Auto Riders to convey passengers around the premises.

Of course, once Cetran manages to establish an international standard for AV technology, concepts like the Auto Riders are sure to become more commonplace in Singapore. This widespread adoption of autonomous public transport will undoubtedly open the door to private AV ownership – the pinnacle of convenience.

So what’s the latest news on self-driving vehicles in Singapore?

A Navya shuttle bus is put through its paces at the Cetran test centre. PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Just last month, the government announced that residents and workers in Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District would be able to make use of driverless buses and shuttles for their daily commutes by 2022.

While the LTA has yet to establish legislation governing private ownership and usage of autonomous vehicles, the fact that they intend to roll out such a system by 2022 means that formalising legislation regarding AVs is definitely in the works.

Further developments could pave the way for vehicles like the Audi A8 utilise their autonomous capabilities on public roads. The Audi A8 is the first production vehicle to have Level 3 autonomous function, letting the car drive itself on roads with a clear divider between itself and oncoming traffic, at speeds up to 60km/h.

The future is bright for AVs in Singapore. Not only is it the natural evolution of personal mobility, but it also happens to be a measure that would alleviate a great deal of Singapore’s burgeoning issues.

To find out more about the Audi A8 and other revolutionary advancements in autonomous vehicles by Audi, visit audiandbeyond.sg.