Thursday, 30 January 2014

Driverless electric cars to take you around?

By Sumita D/O Sreedharan, TODAY, 29 Jan 2014

Trying to book a taxi through a call centre or get a vehicle via a car-sharing scheme could soon be concerns of the past.

With a few taps on your phone, a driverless car could swing by within 20 minutes to take you to your destination and for half the cost of a cab ride.

The team of researchers behind the first driverless electric car developed in Singapore and unveiled yesterday is aiming to make the Republic the first to use such vehicles for public transport.

Dubbed SCOT, for Shared Computer Operated Transport, the vehicle is already plying the roads within the National University of Singapore (NUS) campus. The goal of the 12 researchers from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and NUS who are behind SCOT, is for their design to hit public roads, as soon as in a couple of years.

They will be talking to the authorities on possible areas to test the vehicle for public use, such as in resorts, university campuses or hospital grounds.

The self-driving technology developed by Google and which has been tested on car models such as Toyota Prius, Audi TT and Lexus RX450h is mainly for private use.

Similar to Google’s self-driving car, SCOT also runs on a system using laser sensors mounted in front of and on top of the vehicle to detect obstacles in its path and for navigation. But it needs to be driven along a new route once for the system to map out the surroundings, unlike Google’s, which relies on a Global Positioning System.

Before SCOT can hit the roads, however, there are several speedbumps to overcome, such as the traffic regulations that should apply to these driverless cars and insurance liability issues when accidents happen.

In 2011, the state of Nevada in the United States passed a law permitting autonomous cars on its roads. Florida and California also legalised the testing of autonomous cars on public roads the following year.

Public acceptance could also be another hurdle, said NUS Professor Marcelo Ang, who is one of those who collaborated on the project. But he hopes deployment of the vehicle in more “controlled areas” for a start will help.

“This will not only help us to learn and improve the system, but also provide a visible platform to increase public awareness and government support in our endeavour to create better transport solutions for urban cities,” said Prof Ang.

The researchers said the system now costs S$30,000, but they are hoping to cut it down to S$10,000.

Commuters TODAY interviewed welcomed the possible new transport option and said cost and convenience would be factors that would sway their decision. Investment banker Eric Chia, 35, said: “If this mode is able to cut my travelling time and cost, I would use it to commute.”

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