How Singapore is driving the development of autonomous vehicles

The city-state is leading the path towards driverless cars innovation through legislation and infrastructure

Autonomous Vehicle

When Sergeant John Spartan and Simon Phoenix were brought back to life in the year 2032 after being cryogenically frozen, one of the features of the seemingly perfect future was that cars were self-driven.

That was obviously only the 1993 film Demolition Man but are we already approaching the age where all vehicles won’t need humans to operate them?

Driverless car legislation

In Southeast Asia, the government of Singapore is determined to make the small country a global pioneer of the self-driving vehicles (SDVs) industry.

In February 2017 the Ministry of Transport introduced a series of Autonomous Vehicle Rules, or “AV Rules”, for prospective trials of SDVs.

With the amendment to the Road Traffic Act, the Singaporean law now recognises that motor vehicles don’t require human drivers, making it the first world country to widely adopt autonomous driving.

The opening speech for the Road Traffic Amendment by Ng Chee Meng, the then Second Minister for Transport, limited the regulatory sandbox for AVs to five years: “at the end of five years, the Ministry [of Transport] will consider enacting more permanent legislation or return to Parliament to further extend the period of the sandbox.”

Singapore’s initiative on AV legislation is particularly relevant as without gubernatorial authorisation to test self-driving vehicles on public roads, any technological progress or investment is virtually fruitless.

The city-island is today a testbed for AVs. The 2018 KPMG Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index puts Singapore in first place when it comes to policy and legislation as well as consumer acceptance.

It ranks it second in infrastructure, just after The Netherlands, and holds a respectable eight place on technology and innovation.

Contrary to what some people might think and despite of the newly introduced laws, driverless cars in Singapore are still not actually driverless and they are required to have a qualified driver on board in case something goes wrong.  

As Satya Ramamurthy, Partner and Head of Government and Infrastructure at KPMG Singapore, explains: “The Land Transport Authority (LTA) introduced a regulatory framework that minimises the occurrence of accidents. Operators are required to have a qualified safety driver who will be able to take control of the vehicle in an emergency, hold third-party liability insurance and share data from the trials with the LTA.”

The benefits of using 'Autonomous Vehicle Rules' on a large scale

Apart from being a great invention and technologically brilliant, a massive implementation of Autonomous Vehicle Rules (AVs) could dramatically reduce the cost of transportation and would improve the access to sectors of the community which until now have been neglected by the transport authorities, such as people with disabilities or the elderly.

Having the third highest population density in the world, a massive use of AVs in Singapore could narrow down the numbers of private vehicle owners and by doing so fix the congestion and air pollution which affects the country.

A generalised use of AVs could also potentially free up road space that could be redesigned for other uses or green alternatives.

Considering the amount of prohibitive taxes paid on private cars, current car-owners in the city-state are welcoming the use of AVs instead.  

Some of the companies playing a role in autonomous vehicle development in Singapore include NuTonomy, a startup which set up an autonomous ride-sharing service in the country in 2016.

This was operated through the Grab app, run by the equivalent of Uber in Southeast Asia. The company now has permission to operate in a number of areas in Singapore.

The risks of driverless vehicles

But obviously, not everything is as good as it seems with driverless vehicles. As with any other progress in technology, ethical and safety implications should be carefully considered before any large-scale implementation takes place.

Earlier this year driverless cars made worldwide headlines after the tragic death of a pedestrian who was hit by an autonomous Uber vehicle in Arizona.

This was the first fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle and a wake-up call for over-enthusiastic entrepreneurs in favour of an immediate implementation of the AV project.

The car, which was travelling at 38 mph, didn’t slow down or swerve as it approached the pedestrian, who was walking her bike across the dark road.

Some AV experts who watched the video of the fatal collision concluded that the car’s ample array of sensors should have detected the pedestrian before she was hit.

And although autonomous technology has shown that for the most part driverless cars are safe and will most likely make driving safer by eliminating human errors, it should not be forgotten that the whole project is still work in progress.

Like a novice driver with a brand-new licence, autonomous vehicles are still learning how to drive. Most tests with AVs around the world have been done in closed-circuits and not public roads and lack of real-life unexpected situations.

This is why Singapore's steps are so important since they provide valuable insights on real-life AV use.

Timothy Carone, a driverless car expert and associate teaching professor at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business thinks that as autonomous systems develop and become more capable of dealing with uncommon situations, autonomous systems will also improve and will be able to make more complex decisions.

"Driving a car can seem like a rote process, but it is not," Carone told CNET earlier this year. "We make complex decisions and value judgments continually when we are behind the wheel."

However, it could take years until autonomous systems are able to master this kind of complex situations and deemed completely safe. The question is, are companies and entrepreneurs ready to wait?

Another major risk that can affect driverless cars is the possibility of hackers interfering with the system and wreaking havoc.

If managed to infiltrate into the system, hackers could not only mess with your iTunes playlist but also disable safety features such as airbags and ABS or even steal the vehicle entirely.

The transport of the future?

In any case, these challenges, while being taken into account, shouldn’t be an excuse to slow down the progress of what it could be the next transport of the future.

As KITT in Knight Rider would say, "keep your scanners peeled", but also keep moving forward!