Friday, 29 August 2014

Driverless vehicles could hit public roads here next year

By Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2014

IT WON'T slam its brakes, it won't cut into your lane and it won't tailgate. It also won't have a driver.

From January next year, driverless cars could hit Singapore's public roads for the first time.

A year-long trial may see these fully autonomous cars zipping around buildings in the one-north area. A separate trial involving driverless buses could also see workers being ferried between Fusionopolis and Biopolis by 2016.

A new 17-member committee formed by the Transport Ministry has set up the two schemes. Headed by the ministry's permanent secretary Pang Kin Keong, it will research, develop and implement driverless technology in Singapore.

Among the members are international experts, industry players and personnel from the Land Transport Authority and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

Singapore is still in the early stages when it comes to the use of driverless vehicles, with such vehicles being tested by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). Nanyang Technological University and engineering firm ST Kinetics are also testing such vehicles.

Two driverless golf buggies could be available for the public to test in Jurong Lake District later this year.

Senior Minister of State for Transport and Finance Josephine Teo said Singapore is about 10 to 15 years away from a full deployment of such vehicles. While that is quite a long wait, when the vehicles eventually hit roads, neighbourhoods will be clean, green and car-free, she said.

"For longer intra-town commutes, commuters can just hop onto a pod that runs through an underground network, almost like a personalised MRT," she said.

In Milton Keynes in Britain, 100 electric-powered driverless pods ferry people around town.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that shared driverless vehicles could reduce passenger vehicle ownership here from the current 900,000 to 300,000.

But experts say introducing driverless technology in Singapore may have complications too, such as getting commuters to feel safe in driverless vehicles, and setting out regulations.

"One challenge is liability - what if it hits someone? Who pays?" said MIT professor Emilio Frazzoli, who sits on the new committee.

Those who wish to give feedback to the committee can visit

New era of self-driving cars will transform cities
By Carlo Ratti And Matthew Claudel, Published The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2014

ADDING to its vast portfolio of transportation-related acronyms, the Ministry of Transport yesterday announced the launch of CARTS - the Committee for Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore.

As the committee brings together expertise from different backgrounds surrounding mobility, several questions are poised to emerge: What could autonomous (or self-driving) vehicles do for Singapore? And, more generally, what is the status of the technology today?

Cars have been undergoing a gradual transformation from the kinds of mechanical systems Henry Ford might have imagined, to become computers on wheels. That transformation is bringing with it a new wave of digital advances - most relevantly, autonomous vehicles (AVs).

The first autonomous (or self-driving) cars date back to the late 20th century, but recent advances in sophistication and reductions in cost - such as cheap Lidar (light and radar) systems, which can "see" a street in 3D, similar to the human eye - are now bringing driverless cars closer to the market.

Several manufacturers are working towards integrating such systems into their fleets, and expect to start selling premium cars with different degrees of autonomy as early as 2016. According to a recently released report, in a few decades, virtually all vehicles on the road might be self-driving.

As this revolution develops, it will certainly transform our daily routines: imagine driving hands-free while having the luxury of reading a book, taking a nap, or guiltlessly texting on the road. At the same time, something far more interesting - and still unexplored - is the potential transformation of our cities themselves.

AVs promise a dramatic impact by blurring the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. "Your" car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family - or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighbourhood, social media circles, or city.

A recent paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's SMART Future Mobility team shows that the mobility demand of a city like Singapore could be met with 30 per cent of its existing vehicles.

Furthermore, other researchers in the same group suggest this number could be cut by another 40 per cent if passengers travelling on similar routes at the same time were willing to share a vehicle - an estimate supported by an analysis of the "shareability" networks of New York City taxis.

This implies a city in which everyone can travel on demand with just one-fifth of the number of cars in use today.

Such reductions in vehicle traffic would dramatically lower the cost of our mobility infrastructure and the embodied energy associated with building and maintaining it. Fewer cars may also mean shorter travel times, less congestion, and a smaller environmental impact.

The deployment of more intelligent transportation systems promises to deliver similar benefits. Real-time data planning and smart routing are already a reality, and more advances are coming in the wake of "intelligent city" initiatives around the world, such as Singapore's "Smart Nation" project.

Tomorrow's AVs will prompt another tide of innovation, from optimised road capacity to intersection management. Imagine a world without traffic lights, where vehicular flows "magically" pass through one another and avoid collision.

While the world's mobility challenges will increasingly be met by silicon rather than asphalt, widespread adoption requires a guarantee that tomorrow's streets are as safe - or safer - than today's.

Traffic accidents, though rarer, would still be a possibility; in fact, they might be one of the main impediments to implementation of autonomous systems, demanding a restructuring of insurance and liability that could sustain armies of lawyers for years to come.

Finally, there is the issue of digital security. We are all familiar with viruses crashing our computers, but what if a virus crashes our cars? Resolving these issues is crucial, but none is insurmountable. Each will be addressed as autonomy redefines transportation and sparks the next generation of innovations in the field.

Government-supported experimentation in a country such as Singapore - with its pioneering attitude towards mobility and a living-lab condition that nurtures controlled technological experimentation - could lead to a model for smart urban mobility worldwide.

The CARTS' task is ambitious, as it aims to leapfrog the island into an era of autonomous driving. Stated goals include "studying and test-bedding the various AV technologies in our environment, laying the legal, regulatory and liability framework to govern the operations of AVs, and exploring industry development and business opportunities".

All this will contribute, more broadly, to "visioning and designing a new transport mobility concept" - an exciting ambition indeed, to pave the road ahead.

Carlo Ratti is a member of CARTS; he directs the Senseable City Lab at MIT and is a principal investigator at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. Matthew Claudel is a research fellow at the MIT Senseable City Laboratory.

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