Aiming to test driverless vehicles in a wide range of traffic scenarios and road conditions, the Land Transportation Authority (LTA) has unveiled plans for making the entire western part of Singapore a testing ground for these autonomous vehicles (AVs).

The move was announced on Thursday (Oct 24) by Senior Minister of State for Transport Janil Puthucheary at the opening of the Autonomous Mobility Summit, held in conjunction with the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress.

The expanded test-bed that covers areas such as Woodlands, Bukit Merah and Choa Chu Kang – will see more than 1,000km of public roads opened up to the testing of these self-driving vehicles. The expanded testing ground will encompass existing test beds at Buona Vista, Sentosa, Jurong Island as well as the Nanyang Technological University and neighbouring CleanTech Park.

Among the companies currently testing AVs in these areas are ST Engineering, transport giant ComfortDelGro and American firm nuTonomy.

“This will support the robust testing of AVs’ capabilities to provide inter-town services and longer-haul journeys in a safe manner, and pave the way for the planned pilot deployment of AVs in the early 2020s,” LTA authorities said.

The expansion of AV trials will be done gradually over the next few years in a “small-scale, incremental manner”, with all testing subject to LTA approval.

LTA also said that grassroots and community leaders would be informed if there are plans to conduct such trials in their areas.

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Any new trials will begin in a “limited manner within a small area”, adding further expansions in trials will only be allowed if the AVs pass stringent tests. Public safety, LTA stressed, will continue to be the “top priority” in these trials.

Comprehensive evaluation before tests

Vehicles will have to go through thorough safety assessment prior to allowing them on the roads, and these must have a safety driver on board who can take over the wheel in case of emergencies.

They must also have third-party liability insurance, and display prominent decals and other markings to allow other road users to identify them as autonomous vehicles.

AV adoption

A report by KPMG ranked Singapore top in Asia and second in the world after the Netherlands in its readiness to adopt AVs.

Speaking at the event, Dr Janil said investment in AVs have grown in recent years, with research firm Pitchbook reporting more than US$10 billion in venture capital financing invested in the sector last year –  up from less than US$1 billion in 2013.

Singapore is “most excited” by the shift in AV research to larger capacity vehicles such as buses and trucks, he said, adding that autonomous shuttles have the potential to “radically transform mobility” by allowing for more efficient on-demand transport.

Public acceptance is key to the widespread adoption of AVs, he added, though he noted this could easily be eroded by accidents involving the vehicles.

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The industry must work together with the authorities to understand what the safety challenges are and introduce best practices and regulatory frameworks that strike a balance between innovation and safety, he said.

Safety, still a concern

While analysts said that the decision to allow driverless vehicles to be tested in areas that have more traffic or people is good, and that it is a step towards keeping Singapore’s autonomous vehicle sector in the game, they pointed out that safety is still a concern because driverless systems are not foolproof — and more so in trial zones that are in residential and high-traffic areas.

Transport economist Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) said: “A well-publicised fatality that occurred during self-driving trials in the United States was because the safety driver did not pay sufficient attention and take over when the vehicle failed to recognise a pedestrian on the road.”

The standard safety protocol in driverless trials is to have a safety driver or engineer always present in the vehicle, to ensure someone is engaged and able to take over in case of unexpected difficulties.

Dr Terence Fan, transport analyst from the Singapore Management University, said that the expansion of the trial zones will give companies the opportunity to test out their vehicles on different terrains, roads and traffic conditions.

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“As we adopt a scenario-based testing for our autonomous vehicle development, the expansion of the test site to the whole western region of Singapore means more opportunities for us to encounter different environments, including residential areas which are densely populated,” Dr Lee Shiang Long, president of land systems at the company, said.

Dr Lee added: “The learnings will be very valuable in the development of better algorithms and the response of artificial intelligence to the various traffic situations, ensuring a more robust and reliable autonomous vehicle system.”

Associate Professor Theseira also articulated that driverless systems need to accumulate a “massive amount of data under real-world driving conditions” to be safe and efficient, and that data has to be “context-specific to the behaviour of drivers and pedestrians, and features of road design” in Singapore.

“Without extensive field trials in Singapore, I don’t think we will be able to deploy driverless vehicles on the same timescale as other major urban areas will,” he added.

A major milestone

Associate Professor Michael Li Zhi-Feng from NTU, who researches on network congestion pricing and car-lite solutions, called the move a “major milestone”. He said it indicates that the autonomous vehicle sector in Singapore is “ready for a realistic deployment.”

“It shows Singapore’s determination to be at the frontier of this development, which surely enhances its reputation as an innovation hub.” -/TISG