A Driverless Future in Singapore?

A Driverless Future
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The tiny and compact city of Singapore is home to 5.54 million inhabitants, both citizens and foreigners.

This figure is expected to rise by a third to 6.9 million over the next two decades, according to the 2013 White Paper on population.

Our public transport services have been exhausted by the influx of commuters. Every morning, roads are congested and we are packed like sardines in a tin on trains. On top of that, many commuters have been frustrated with the breakdowns and disruptions in the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) System in recent years.

‘Driverless’ Transport System

To accommodate a swelling population, Singapore’s authorities are putting forward a more extensive rail network by 2030 and a ‘driverless’ transport system — these include driverless bus or pods that could transport people on the roads and bring about better mobility for the elderly and disabled.

It sounds like science-fiction, but the advent of Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology has turned this dream into reality. Autonomous vehicles detect surroundings using a light and radar system known as LIDAR, cameras, GPS, odometry, and computer vision to form a 3D map of the world.

AV technology is already deployed in the North-East and Downtown MRT lines as well as the LRT, and Singaporeans might not have to wait too long to ride in driverless pods.

SMRT, Singapore’s second-largest public transport operator, has worked hand-in-hand with Dutch film, 2getthere, to put forth futuristic-looking 24-seater pods. Powered by electricity, these driverless pods are set to journey on Singapore’s streets by the end of this year, as stated in a report by The Telegraph.

The Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore (CARTS) has also been established to draft out frameworks to smooth the way for driverless vehicles in the time ahead. In addition, together with R&D agency A*STAR, the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI) is set up to investigate the prospects of AV technology in Singapore. [1]

A ‘Car-Lite’ and ‘Walkable’ City

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that the sharing of autonomous vehicles could lessen the number of vehicles on the road from 900,000 to 300,000.

Today, automakers are moving their ‘driverless car’ research and development into top gear.

Sebastian Thrun, a professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University who led the development of the Google self-driving car, hopes to eliminate vehicle accidents after losing his best friend to a car accident.

By having driverless cars, Thrun said it will save lives because autonomous vehicles employ car-to-car communication to avoid accident and will always “obey traffic rules”.

In addition, driverless vehicles operate in sync with traffic signals and follow one another in close proximity, hence it will lead to better traffic flow and ease congestion.

Commuters could also share a ride on a driverless vehicle in the future. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that the sharing of AV vehicles could lessen the number of vehicles on the road from 900,000 to 300,000. That is to say, land set aside for roads could be used to build more cycling routes, parks as well as walkways, achieving a ‘Car-Lite’ and ‘walkable’ city.

Are Driverless Vehicles Really Safe?

Since 2009, Google’s driverless cars have traversed more than 1.8 million miles (2.9 kilometres) on public roads and were involved in a dozen accidents, as stated in a monthly report by Google’s project team in May 2015. [2]

Though Google claims that autonomous vehicles are safe and a report by McKinsey & Co. found that it could reduce accident rates to 90 percent, a study by researchers at the University of Michigan stated otherwise. They discovered that self-driving cars were five times more likely to be caught up in accidents than human-operated cars, after observing the driving records of 50 Google, Audi, and Delphi autonomous vehicles.

However, the University of Michigan researchers stressed that the autonomous vehicles were not at fault in any of these crashes and maintained that these accidents happened as a result of a collision with a human-operated vehicle.

Despite the above studies, there is still plenty of room for research to determine whether autonomous vehicles are safe. Could machine error be as hazardous as human misjudgment? The challenges ahead include enabling the self-driving navigational system to possess a high level of artificial intelligence in order to understand visual cues, for example, a policeman’s signal to stop a car.

Also, at the moment, autonomous vehicles are not designed to function in harsh weather such as rain, snow, or even in a highly dusty environment. Software breakdowns, jamming of sensors and hijacking of self-driving software systems by hackers are other major concerns. Nevertheless, security to counter these problems is being developed.

While security measures to counter software breakdowns are well under way, a fatal crash involving a self-driving Tesla Model has cast doubt over the safety of AV technology once again. Joshua Brown, 40, was the first known victim to die at the wheel of a self-driving Tesla in Williston, Florida, on May 7. Reports say that Brown was watching a Harry Potter film when his Tesla crashed into a truck — ostensibly not heeding the rule for the Autopilot feature in Tesla’s instruction manual, which states that drivers should keep their hands on the wheel to maintain control of the vehicle at all times.

It seems that there is no guaranteed path to safety after all.

Cycling for Everyone

Why should we rely on cold and unemotional robotic vehicles when human beings are born with hands and legs to make things work?

Why should we rely on cold and unemotional robotic vehicles when human beings are born with hands and legs to make things work? Why not return to man’s original physical capabilities and relish in outdoor activities such as cycling?

With the world’s most extensive cycling network, Holland is a cyclist’s paradise, and in cities like Amsterdam, there are more bikes than people.

To effectuate the vision of the National Cycling Plan and a ‘Car-Lite Singapore’, we could emulate Holland’s cycling culture by building more bike-friendly infrastructure. These include a comprehensive and well-connected cycling path network, protected intersections, bicycle crossings, bicycle parking areas, clear signage and lights for cyclists on the road. Cycling lessons could also be incorporated into the primary school curriculum.

Moreover, cycling is environmentally friendly and it improves one’s overall fitness, tying in nicely with the healthy lifestyle plan initiated by the Ministry of Health.

The incremental steps taken to spearhead the ‘Cycling for All’ plan include transforming Ang Mo Kio into the city-state’s first model walking and cycling town, as revealed by Land Transport Authority (LTA) in December 2014. A 16km-long cycling path network, along with a 2.6km-long cycling and walking corridor connecting the MRT viaduct between Yio Chu Kang MRT station and Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, are scheduled for completion by 2018.


[1] “Driverless Vehicles: A Vision for Singapore’s Transport.” Ministry of Transport. http://goo.gl/v4g80H

[2] “Google Self-Driving Car Project Monthly Report.” May 2015. http://goo.gl/ABuHyG

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