Autonomous vehicle technology is among the hottest research and development focuses in the automotive industry these days, with future possibilities still seemingly boundless despite profound changes already brought by rapid technology advances in recent years.
It may be confusing to the average bystander. The Autonomous Vehicle connotation is used interchangeably to describe varying degrees of autonomy — from as-yet non-viable full autonomy that requires zero human influence on the vehicle up to minimal autonomy that is already commercially viable.
So just how far has the Autonomous Vehicle technology progressed in respect of near-full autonomy or Level 5? Singapore, now ground zero for efforts to bring Autonomous Vehicles into practical reality, may offer some insight into the question.
Going by its initiatives, Singapore has essentially declared an intention of getting Autonomous Vehicles onto its roads as soon as possible.
Driving the agenda is the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI), tasked with preparing the technical and statutory requirements for Autonomous Vehicle adoption in Singapore down the road. The Singaporean government has also separated routes in the One-North business park in Queenstown specifically for Autonomous Vehicle testing that is open to interested parties.
So how soon can mass deployment of Autonomous Vehicles happen for Singapore’s public transportation? The short answer: no one really knows yet.
In a previous report, the Business Insider estimates some 10 million driverless cars to be on roads worldwide by 2020. The latest reports from the ground, however, indicate that the Autonomous Vehicle technology needs much more time than that to be ready for urban transportation.
Speaking at the first Autonomous Vehicles Asia 2017 conference (AVA2017), held from Feb 21 to Feb 22 in Singapore, Niels de Boer, programme director at the Nanyang Technological University’s Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of Autonomous Vehicles (CETRAN) expressed uncertainty when asked about a hard timeline for Autonomous Vehicles to hit Singaporean roads.
However, he expects utility vehicles that work within a closed, structured environment to be the early adopters for autonomous vehicle technology. Such vehicles include road sweepers and long-haul autonomous trucks.
The commercial application for cargo trucks has already seen entrants such as Uber’s Otto unit, a self-driving trucking start-up it acquired in 2016, as well as rising competitor Embark whose self-driving truck technology was unveiled in February 2017.
For Singapore, the Autonomous Vehicle concept is not entirely new the local mass rapid transit (MRT) trains are all driverless.
The sticking point in respect of Autonomous Vehicles on human-traversed roads seems to be road safety technology and whether Autonomous Vehicles can safely navigate human-traversed pathways.
According to Peter Damen, the Executive Steering Committtee chairman at the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative, road safety is the focus and purpose behind Australia’s own AV efforts.
But the big challenge there is, paradoxically, humans, according to John Wall, manager at the Safety Technology Centre for Road Safety, a unit under Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW).
In a forum session, Wall indicated to AVA2017 participants that the Autonomous Vehicle technology has not yet advanced to a level where the system could match human perception and adjustability.
As an example, Wall cites a scenario where white lines on the road are replaced by temporary yellow lines due to ongoing construction work. “With both lines on the road, a human driver will be able to compute the rule of yellow lines superseding the white line… but the Autonomous Vehicle may not be able to compute when the road is marked with multiple lines.”
Given that human error causes 94% of fatalities on the road, as Bloomberg quoted US safety regulators as saying, this means the potential mix of both autonomous and human-controlled vehicles on the road could defeat the safety benefits from Autonomous Vehicles.
That problem points to an obvious solution: John Krafcik, head of Google’s self-driving car project, said in an August interview with Bloomberg Businessweek that the tech giant is developing cars without steering wheels and gas or brake pedals because “we need to take the human out of the loop.”
In addition, the question of a standard platform or operating system for Autonomous Vehicles remains unresolved despite strong interest from various carmakers in the idea, according to a recent report by the New York Times.
While carmakers such as BMW are expecting to roll out near-self-driving cars by 2021, the private sector implementation is designed as a built-in feature rather than for mass urban transportation purposes.
While in Singapore for AVA2017, Motion Digest sought to experience the driverless taxi aka robocar service, which is currently undergoing trial at One-North by Grab and nuTonomy, a driverless car start-up.
However, the attempt was unsuccessful. When asked, Grab said the robocar service is suspended without clarifying further. In October last year, Grab robocar had its first accident colliding with a lorry while changing lanes. Maybe between then and now there has been some “incidents” that presented serious road safety issues, which is one of the reasons of the trial run been suspended. One would be interested to know about the number of disengagement occurred during the robocar test run.
So where does all these leave Singapore’s Autonomous Vehicle initiative?
The emerging picture is that a closed-circuit approach, such as de Boer’s example of autonomous utility vehicles, represents a low-hanging fruit that would be achievable much more quickly.
In fact, there has been precedents in Europe in respect of driverless bus programs led by Autonomous Vehicle maker Navya, AV technology start-up EasyMile and BestMile, which provides cloud platform for Autonomous Vehicles.
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These are still in preliminary and trial stages with some uncertainties remaining — take the suspension of PostBus’ driverless bus trials in Sion, Switzerland in September 2016 after an accident.
However, Singaporean urban planners and driverless initiative groups would do well to focus on the closed-circuit Autonomous Vehicle segment. This approach removes the human element and circumvents the safety issue for now — and is within reach much faster than Autonomous Vehicles on normal roads would be.