Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Driverless buses on Singapore roads by 2020

Commuters can catch a driverless public bus by 2020
Consortium led by ST Kinetics expects to unveil battery-powered prototype by early next year
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 Apr 2017

From as early as October 2020, commuters will be able to hop on to one of two driverless public buses here.

A newly formed consortium led by ST Kinetics, which is building the autonomous battery-powered buses, expects to unveil a prototype by early next year.

The Singapore Autonomous Vehicles Consortium includes the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore University of Technology and Design, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Institute of Technology.

It will also launch four driverless on-demand minibuses on Sentosa next year.

ST Engineering, ST Kinetics' parent group, announced this yesterday - six months after NTU said it planned to roll out a driverless shuttle between its campus and nearby CleanTech Park by 2018.

ST Kinetics president Lee Shiang Long told The Straits Times that the group decided to develop its own autonomous buses because the ones tested here previously "were not working that well".

"When we were trialling those vehicles, we actually had many (sales) inquiries from neighbouring countries," Dr Lee said. "But I asked myself, 'Do we want to be merely a middleman or do we want to build our own capability?'

"It's not a 100 per cent sure-win, but it's something we must bet on."

Dr Lee revealed that the bus chassis will be from a supplier which has agreed to allow ST Kinetics access to the vehicle's electronic and communications network.

The driverless bus will have an all-aluminium body to keep it light and it will be electrically powered.

Besides lithium-ion batteries, Dr Lee said the team is also looking at another newer form of batteries.

The buses will have Level 4 autonomy initially. Level 4 is when a vehicle can drive by itself but is still manned, whereas Level 5 is the highest level of autonomy when the vehicle can operate on its own with no one on board.

A number of other countries have started autonomous bus trials, but none with full-sized buses. They include Japan, the United States and Switzerland.

Last September, a driverless minibus in the Swiss city of Sion hit the opened tailgate of a parked van.

No one was hurt, but the incident again highlighted the shortcomings of autonomous technology in recognising unusual circumstances.

Dr Lee said the route on which the autonomous buses ply will be "scanned and mapped regularly" to ensure changes such as roadworks and diversions are accounted for.

The buses will also be engineered to navigate in rainfall of up to 30mm per hour, which means they might not be able to operate in a torrential storm.

NUS transport researcher Lee Der-Horng said that autonomous buses would be most suitable for "trunk services with minimum turning requirements and with bus lanes to enable better right of way".

"Since it is to be an electric bus, the route should ideally not be distant from depots for charging purposes," he added.

The flip side to driverless buses

By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Apr 2017

In the 1980s, bus conductors were phased out when ticketing automation allowed Singapore buses to convert to one-man operations. Will bus drivers face the same fate when autonomous buses arrive?

Tech and automotive experts are quite sure that the day will come, but are divided on when exactly. The bullish ones are betting on a five-year horizon, while the more conservative are looking beyond 50 years.

Singapore policymakers are putting their money down with the bullish ones. Earlier this week, the Land Transport Authority inked a deal with ST Kinetics to build driverless buses here, aiming to put them into service by late 2020. It is a bold target to develop something so radical in three years. That is the time established vehicle makers take to develop a new model based on existing technology.

But if the bullish camp is right, should bus drivers sit up and take notice? By 2020, there will be close to 10,000 bus drivers here. When (not if) autonomous buses start plying the roads, their jobs will be at stake.

Of course, it will not happen overnight. Even if ST Kinetic's first two buses are a success, it will take 10 to 20 years before all buses can run without drivers. And for the first few years, the public would still feel safer with someone at the wheel, even if he or she were not driving. But eventually, no one will be needed.

Bus drivers are not alone. Uber is investing heavily in driverless technology. That means the tens of thousands in Singapore who drive private-hire cars full-time or part-time will not have a very long career.

Driving is just one job. A study by market research firm Forrester found that 6 per cent of all jobs in the United States will be replaced by automation by 2021.

Clearly, society should not hold back advancement just to protect jobs that are becoming redundant, especially when the eventual benefits are huge.

In the transport field, driverless trucks could allow commercial vehicle usage to be diverted to off-peak hours, for instance, freeing up road space for others.

What matters is that policymakers prepare for and mitigate the undesirable fallout such as job losses.

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