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Singapore Gearing Up for Autonomous Vehicles on the Road

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Autonomous vehicles are being rigorously tested in a bid to grow Singapore as a smart nation. Driverless buggies and other autonomous vehicles are being tested as the Centre of Excellence for Testing and Research of Autonomous Vehicles (Cetran) by scientists from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) alongside the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

COVID-19 not a factor

The Smart Nation project for the deployment of autonomous vehicles aims to get autonomous buses onto public roads in three districts by the early 2020s.

Despite the short timeline and global pandemic affecting other industries, experts at KPMG say COVID-19 is unlikely to disrupt these plans. “We don’t see COVID-19 making the push towards [autonomous vehicles] any less important,” said Satya Ramamurthy, head of infrastructure, government and health care at KMPG, Singapore.

In fact, he believes that autonomous vehicles would be preferred during a pandemic such as this, as they can help reduce transmission risks.

Risky business

Of course, the idea of not having someone in the driver’s seat to respond to immediate dangers sounds risky. However, runs conducted at Cetran (Cetran) are testing every scenario possible.

This includes dealing with torrential rain, recognising passengers signalling for buses at bus stops, and safety measures during braking. Tests for running autonomous vehicles at night and on expressways are also underway.

The need for autonomous public transport

As Singapore leans into a more car-light society, the country does see a need for boosting its public transport system. Autonomous vehicles could also ease the pressure of a growing and aging population that may not have the means to drive any longer.

Autonomous vehicles would act as the “first and last mile” of a commute, such as from the train station to home or to work, shares professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of the Energy Research Institute at NTU.

Autonomous vehicles won’t just stop at public transport. LTA foresees the inclusion of autonomous road-sweepers and vehicles carrying freight being deployed at off-peak hours to ease road congestion.

Is Singapore ready?

LTA has already made plans to deploy autonomous buses in the next few years. In preparation for this, the government will be expanding testing areas from individual sites to all of western Singapore.

One of the bigger challenges Singapore will face is the acceptance of autonomous vehicles by the public. “The scale of the pilot deployment, whether full scale or part of it, depends on the state of technology readiness, as well as whether the public accepts it as a mode of transport,” shared Lam Wee Shann, chief innovation and transport technology officer at LTA. “The pilot deployment is going to be the first time we actually run [autonomous vehicles] as a public transport service to our people; we are not going to rush.”

But it does seem that Singapore is ready. In a 2020 survey by KPMG, Singapore led in categories on policy and legislation, as well as consumer acceptance. The survey also listed Singapore as first in countries for readiness for autonomous vehicles — up from second place in 2019.

Small changes to job market

A major concern for Singaporeans would definitely be the erasure of jobs like bus driver, should autonomous vehicles become the norm. However, KPMG’s Ramamurthy doesn’t believe that would be the case. Autonomous vehicles would still need bus operators who provide customer service and/or take control of the vehicle if needed.

Lam also said that the government is mindful of the concerns public transport workers would have. LTA has been engaging with unions to help them understand the technology better and the kind of new jobs autonomous vehicles can create for the job market. Lam assures that they are “quite far from mass deployment,” and that these issues would be ironed out before autonomous vehicles take over.

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