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Singapore has nice driverless ambitions and the pandemic is unlikely to cease them

Aerial view of the Competence Center for Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Research (Cetran) in Singapore.

Courtesy of Nanyang Technological University

SINGAPORE – The buggy starts on the track and moves very slowly. Nobody controls it, but the wheel turns and the vehicle makes a left turn.

As if guided by a first-time driver, the driverless buggy jerks back and forth before stopping abruptly when a pedestrian approaches the street on the sidewalk.

Autonomous vehicles are tested here in Singapore – in the competence center for tests and research of autonomous vehicles (Cetran). The buggy trial only covered a small stretch of the 1.3 km route where vehicles drive through road signs and traffic lights, climb a small hill and are tested under simulated rain and flood conditions.

Singapore seeks to become a "smart nation" by using digital technology to boost the economy and improve government services. One such project is the development of autonomous vehicles, or AVs for short. The aim is to have autonomous buses on public roads in three districts of the island by the early 2020s.

The coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to disrupt these plans, according to Satya Ramamurthy, director of infrastructure, government and health at KPMG in Singapore.

"We don't see Covid-19 making the push towards (AVs). less important, "he said, adding that self-driving vehicles offer" meaningful solutions "to the challenges of working in the Asian financial center.

Additionally, Ramamurthy said there has been a shift in preferences from mass public transportation to private options in the face of the coronavirus health crisis. Autonomous vehicles remain "very relevant" to reducing transmission risks, he added.

The country appears to be making headway towards its driverless ambitions. In a KPMG survey in 2020 on the readiness of countries for autonomous vehicles, Singapore took first place – up from second place in 2019.

Risk scenarios

However, experts say there are still some lessons to be learned as Singapore continues to develop autonomous vehicles.

This includes how to deal with pouring rain, how to recognize when waiting passengers signal that buses should stop, and how buses can brake while passengers are safe. There are also plans to test autonomous vehicles at night and on highways.

"How you assess each possible risk scenario is a real challenge from a testing perspective," said Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of Nanyang Technological University's Energy Research Institute. University scientists operate Cetran together with the Land Transport Authority (LTA), a government agency in Singapore.

An autonomous buggy in the Cetran test center (competence center for testing and researching autonomous vehicles) in Singapore.

Ana Nicolaci da Costa for CNBC

One of the country's goals is to ease the pressure on roads from a growing and aging population through the use of autonomous vehicles to promote public transport.

"We're a small country and country is always a limitation," said Lam Wee Shann, LTA's chief innovation and transportation technology officer. "Meeting the diverse needs of our commuters is one of the challenges we face in transportation."

The idea is to have autonomous vehicles on demand on the "first and last mile" of a shuttle service, like the route between the train station home or the train station to work, said Mhaisalkar of NTU. This would help minimize the commuter's "pain points", such as uncertain and long waiting times for connections.

In the future, autonomous vehicles such as street sweepers and vehicles that carry cargo could work outside of business hours and at night as the city tries to reduce congestion on the roads, LTA said.

Pilot deployment

As Singapore prepares for autonomous buses to debut on public roads in the next few years, the government will expand the area in which autonomous vehicles can be tested – from a few individual locations right now to all of western Singapore. This was in response to "industry feedback that a more diverse test environment will help accelerate technology development," the LTA said last year.

Self-driving vehicles still have to be tested in Cetran before they can be approved for testing on public roads.

The scope of the pilot, whether in whole or in part, depends on the level of technology readiness and whether the public accepts it as a means of transport.

Lam Wee Shann

Land Transport Authority

Technology and public adoption will also be factors in determining whether Singapore is ready to launch its autonomous bus pilot program in the early 2020s, LTA's Lam said.

"The size of the pilot, whether in whole or in part, will depend on the level of technology readiness and whether the public will accept it as a means of transport," said Lam. "The pilot operation will be the first time that we are using AV buses as public transport for our employees. We will not be in a hurry."

In the KPMG survey, Singapore topped the Policy & Legislation & Consumer Acceptance categories, but ranked 11th in Technology & Innovation.

Attract business?

Singapore could attract businesses by bringing AV companies to the city-state and creating high-quality jobs in the transportation sector, said KPMG's Ramamurthy.

For example, instead of a bus driver, the autonomous vehicles could have bus operators who provide customer service and have the skills to take control of the vehicle when necessary.

He added that "training" drivers – or teaching workers new skills – should minimize downsizing among local residents.

Driverless street sweepers at the test center in Singapore, known as a competence center for testing and researching autonomous vehicles (Cetran).

Ana Nicolaci da Costa for CNBC

Still, LTA's Lam said the government is aware of the "disruption" to public transport workers from the use of autonomous vehicles and has partnered with unions to help them understand the state of the art and the nature of new jobs. the AVs will create.

Many of these issues need to be addressed before autonomous vehicles become the norm.

"We're pretty far from mass deployment," said Lam.

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