Singapore’s government is joining the trend of self-driving vehicles. (Photo: Lien Hoang)

Singapore’s government is joining the trend of self-driving vehicles. (Photo: Lien Hoang)

From the electric cars made by Tesla, to the trucks in Rio Tinto mines, some vehicles already can drive without humans. But the technology is still new and needs research. 

Companies aren’t the only ones investing, though.

Now Singapore’s government is joining the trend of self-driving vehicles. 

Lien Hoang goes for a test drive in Singapore.

I’ve buckled into a Toyota minivan, and the first thing we do is… not turn the keys in the ignition.

Instead, an engineer in front of me uses a touch screen to type in where we want to go. 

When the computer finishes mapping the route, the car starts moving -- all by itself. No driver… 

This is a self-driving car. But unlike most smart cars, this one doesn’t belong to BMW, or Google, or Uber. Nope, it’s funded by Singapore tax dollars. 

“Two years ago I think most of the industry was talking about 2030. My own gut sense now is that by 2025, I suspect that we can see the technology mature enough to be deployed in a pretty decent and significant way,” he says, “That’s my own forecast.”

That’s Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary at Singapore’s Transport Ministry. He says research is advancing a lot faster than originally expected.

It’s the reason why the Singaporean government has started to invest in autonomous trucks, buses, and cars, partly to be included in the public transit network.

Han Boon Siew is one of the engineers working toward 2025. He’s head of the autonomous vehicle department at the state’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*STAR. 

Han takes me on a test drive in the minivan, which has a huge computer that takes up an entire back seat. 

There are three different screens, plus a small robot on the dashboard that tells us when we’re approaching a roundabout, or when a pedestrian is coming. 

On the exterior, it seems like there’s a laser and camera on every corner of the van to help navigate. We drive around construction zones to see how the van reacts to new situations.

Han explains.

“The vehicle needs to be intelligent enough for itself to move around and make very precise decisions to move safely,” he says, “And second, it needs to have very good perception to adapt to local weather conditions, especially for Singapore, which is raining most of the time in the year.”

Some everyday Singaporeans are already fantasizing about all the possibilities, if driverless cars become reality. Ronak Shah is a student.

“Definitely it could save a lot of time because I could do so many things. Instead of spending time driving I could perhaps eat or drink or have a nap even,” he says, “So that’s just on a personal level. But even transporting and things like that, you could save so much cost in terms of labor and in terms of transport. It makes everything much more convenient in terms of transport, even public transport, buses and taxis.”

However, Shah still has his concerns. Like many drivers, he would be afraid of handing control over to a computer. 

Han understands the fear and his team is working to create a vehicle that the public can trust.

During our test drive, he shows me how a human can take over the driving, change the route, and otherwise maintain control. But in some ways, Han said a self-driving car could be safer than human drivers.

“So this is one of Singapore’s traffic rules. Even where there are no cars, you have to stop, make sure there’s no car, and turn left,” Han explains, “Usually this type of practice will not be done by the humans. But autonomous vehicles, one of the advantages is, it always has the perfect driving behavior just to make sure everything’s safe and it goes.”

Private businesses are joining the party, too. James Fu is director of the Singapore operations at nuTonomy, which makes software for driverless cars. 

The company hopes to work with the government to test out its technology, which it eventually would sell to auto manufacturers. 

Fu says Singapore needs such technology because the island nation has limited space for roads and not enough workers for transport jobs.

“There is a huge manpower shortage in Singapore,” says Fu, “I think this is probably true for many affluent cities where a lot of the blue-collar jobs, it’s hard to find sufficient people to fill those gaps. And Singapore’s population is growing really fast... So with more people you need a better and more robust transportation system.” 

Pang, from the transport ministry, agrees Singapore needs a robust system of getting around.

He says driverless technology should be more ambitious than just getting people to switch from normal cars to self-driving cars.

Private cars are not a sustainable future, he says, so people need to think about the bigger picture for public transit.

“I think we have a reputation that when the government of Singapore sets its sights on doing something, for example an area of infrastructure, we get there,” he says, “We’re able to marshal in every single public sector agency to make it work, singularly focused on what we want to achieve. And I think through many projects in the past we’ve shown that we can deliver.”

 

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