While LTA excited to launch new driverless bus trial, experts not so excited

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By: 永久浪客/Forever Vagabond

It was reported that one day after a driverless vehicle had gotten into an accident with a lorry, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that it is launching Singapore’s first trial of driverless buses in Jurong West (http://theindependent.sg/one-day-after-singapores-first-driverless-car-accident-lta-introduces-driverless-buses).

Yesterday, a driverless car on trial in One North collided with a lorry. LTA said that the test vehicle was changing lane when it hit the lorry but at a low speed. There were no injuries. LTA and the Police are investigating the cause of the incident.

Today, LTA announced that it was collaborating with NTU on an autonomous bus trial, starting with two electric hybrid buses. It hopes to eventually outfit existing buses with a suite of intelligent sensors and develop a self-driving system, which would be able to navigate in Singapore’s local road traffic and climate conditions.

LTA further added that they intend to launch the driverless buses to ply the roads between NTU and CleanTech Park to Pioneer MRT station during the trial.

LTA wrote on its Facebook page, “If you’re as excited as we are, remember to tune back in every now and then for the latest land transport updates!”

Experts not so excited

Despite the exuberance shown by LTA over driverless vehicle technology, experts in US said that a fully automated vehicle that is 100 percent safe 100 percent of the time and can operate on any street in any weather condition is not right around the corner (‘Fully autonomous vehicles won’t arrive for a long time‘).

It’s at least a decade or more down the road, according to the assessment from Prof Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab and his view is shared by other experts at other schools and elsewhere. Carnegie Mellon, the crucible of autonomous vehicle technology, has been working on driverless vehicles since the 1980s.

Prof Rajkumar said that sensing equipment, such as cameras, lidar and radar, has to get more efficient, especially in unpleasantly cold or wet weather.

Software has to be perfected like able to anticipate nearly every scenario a vehicle can encounter, from bad weather to a traffic cop’s hand signals to a pedestrian darting into traffic.

Infrastructure also needs to be improved, from lane markings to traffic signals to bridges – as well as the vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems. For a vehicle to drive itself safely in all conditions and speeds, it has to know where it is at all times so that, for example, it can anticipate a stop sign around a corner.

Computers lack common sense

“We as humans have common sense and reasoning powers that we apply, and most of the time, if not always, we do the right thing,” said Prof Rajkumar. “Computers, though very powerful, are unfortunately lacking in common sense.”

“Self-driving cars can only do what programmers tell them to do. They can’t anticipate everything that can happen on the road.”

Then, there is the liability and regulatory issues involved:
• Will insurance policies for driverless cars cover the car itself?
• Or will they cover the owner of the vehicle?
• Or perhaps the technology company that controls the car’s routes?
• Who will be responsible if there is an accident?
• The individual owner or the the vehicle manufacturer?
• Or the company that designed the navigation system?

In fact, in a survey by IEEE of more than 200 experts in the field of autonomous vehicles, it was found that the three biggest obstacles are legal liability, policymakers and consumer acceptance.

Bradley Stertz, corporate communications manager for Audi, said that a fully automated vehicle with no driver is still 20 or 30 years away. “To have the car understand every single possibility is a massive challenge,” he said.

Frank Sgambati, director of marketing and product innovation for Bosch, said the “fully automated” Bosch vehicle is a long way off.

Kristen Kinley, global communications manager of the electronics and safety division for Delphi Automotive, said that it could be “many years” before drivers can completely relinquish control of the vehicle. These cars are very costly, she said, and the technology needs to be fail-proof.

Despite the cautiousness exhibited by experts in US, LTA on the other hand is very “excited”. Presumably, it may look good on LTA officials to make Singapore the first city in the world to have driverless cars, taxis and buses running.