An autonomous shuttle bus is seen during a public trial on Sentosa Island, Singapore

Singapore launches public trial of driverless buses

Image credit: REUTERS/Travis Teo

Singapore has begun testing one of its first autonomous bus shuttle services this week, with the vehicles developed by ST Engineering dodging roaming peacocks, meandering tourists and kerbside bushes.

Passengers on the trial buses found themselves almost outnumbered by stewards checking that their seatbelts were tightly fastened as the Singapore-based company began testing four vehicles in the coastal district of Sentosa.

Singapore, ranked second behind the US in its preparedness for wide-scale driverless transport in a recent KPMG report, plans to deploy autonomous buses in three districts of the island from 2022.

The country’s latest trial, due to run until 15 November, is being closely watched by tech firms and vehicle manufacturers around the world following a series of mishaps, leading Singapore’s transport ministry, in a joint statement with ST Engineering, to insist: “Public safety is our top priority.”

Tan Nai Kwan, chief robotics engineer at ST Engineering’s Land Systems arm, said the test was “nerve-wracking”, but stressed the safety precautions taken. These precautions included a human driver hovering over the self-rotating steering wheel, ready to snatch back control of the vehicle in an instant.

On the first day of the trial on Monday (26 August), roadside bushes lightly buffeted by the wind and wandering beachgoers were enough to trigger the bus’s many sensors, bringing it to a juddering halt as it trundled along quiet roads.

However, Kwan said the most “dangerous beasties” encountered so far were roaming peacocks which fly unexpectedly into the road.

A similar test is currently under way on roads around a university campus in the centre of the island. Tan said with advances in technology, the plan is for safety drivers to eventually retreat to a remote control centre. However, he did not put a timeframe on that happening.

In 2016, a self-driving car being tested in the island state collided with a truck as it was changing lanes. There were no injuries but similar accidents in the US have been fatal.

The few confident tourists who managed to navigate the on-demand service on the trial’s first day in Singapore, however, did not seem fazed by their robotic navigator, according to the company.

“It’s pretty cool but at the same time it feels similar to a normal bus,” said Stephen Byrne, a student from Ireland. “I suppose that is a good thing, it’s not too much of a shock. It’s probably safer than being in some humans’ hands.”

On-road testing of the autonomous shuttles on Sentosa began in June 2018. 

Also in Singapore at the start of March, two Volvo Electric buses had undergone road trials at the NTU Smart Campus at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), ahead of their anticipated release onto public roads.

There are also several other countries that are trialling driverless vehicles on their roads. In fact, a driverless car-sharing service, operated by tech firm FiveAI, went through supervised trials in the London boroughs of Bromley and Croydon in April. 

Furthermore, at the end of March, a research team from the University of Southern California developed a way to test the perception of self-driving cars and determine at what level the vehicle ‘perceives’ and understands its surroundings.

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