Many great ideas can be traced back to youthful idealism, and the early beginnings of self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs) are no different.
When a group of students from Carnegie Mellon University developed a self-driving vehicle for a competition (and won), it caught the attention of Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A new industry was born, with tech and automotive titans caught in a 21st-century car race to turn AVs, the holy grail of vehicle evolution, into reality. After all, if you think about it, a fully functional AV is one step behind teleportation as a means of getting from point A to B.
Recognising the profound impact AVs have on our society, Singapore has taken small, incremental steps to integrate AVs into our Smart Nation program.
Driving into the future with AVs
Since 2014, Singapore has been conducting trials to study the potential of autonomous vehicles.
These trials have expanded gradually from a purposefully built testing centre (CETRAN) into public roads within selected areas. Autonomous shuttle services have been available to the public at Sentosa, Gardens by the Bay, and currently, at Jurong Lake Gardens to improve accessibility within the vast grounds.
Most recently, the testing has advanced to Milestone 2 in our testing regime, which allows AVs to be tested in residential areas such as Dover and Buona Vista.
Besides cars, there have also been specific trials for autonomous buses, trucks, and robot “couriers”. When these technologies become fully operational, they should help Singapore overcome the workforce constraints in its transport and logistics sector.
Moreover, AVs, with their high-fidelity sensors and strict adherence to traffic rules, will, in theory, make our roads safer with fewer road accidents.
Hitting a roadblock (or two)
The chatter surrounding AVs grew to epic proportions by 2017. Around that time, Elon Musk predicted his cars would achieve “complete autonomy”.
General Motors (GM) said it would start producing a fleet of AVs by 2019. And Waymo, formerly the Google self-driving car project, looked set to launch a driverless-taxi service in the same year.
The world then, including Singapore, was abuzz with excitement at the imminent arrival of AVs. But as we all know, nothing of that magnitude happened. In terms of technological breakthrough, it has been one step forward, two steps back and then, crickets.
Instead, news of AVs has been awash in a sea of negative publicity. GM had to recall and update the software of its self-driving cars following a crash. Tesla is under investigation for its self-driving claims, and Ford and Volkswagen have all but given up on developing self-driving cars.
So far, the problem with AVs is, despite advances in machine learning, it still lacks the cognitive flexibility of humans to make them good drivers.
Their ability to learn from data is both its triumph and downfall. Since AVs will struggle with situations they have never seen before, it is simply impossible to predict how they will react to edge cases until they happen. And by then, it might be too late.
With technology nowhere close to where it should be, it is no surprise that optimism has given way to resignation.
In the words of Jim Farley, President and CEO of Ford, “the auto industry’s large-scale commercialisation of self-driving cars was further out than expected.”
Will AVs hit our shores?
According to a study conducted by management consultancy Roland Berger, Singapore is the fourth most ready country in the world to implement and accept autonomous mobility.
But while Singaporeans might be eager to embrace AVs, AVs are not ready for us. We might have been assiduously partaking in trials and tests, but ultimately, Singapore is not developing new AV technologies.
Instead, our focus has been on developing testing requirements and researching how AVs behave and operate. The data from these exercises will be instrumental in providing us with insights into the infrastructure required to build an effective ecosystem within which AVs can be deployed.
As for whether the government thinks we are ready, here is what they have to say.
The timeline for the deployment of AVs in Singapore is dependent on the progress of AV technology in meeting safety standards and gaining public acceptance.
Globally, AV companies are still conducting early trials and developing the technology for the diverse range of environments in different cities, including Singapore. The technology is not ready for large-scale city-wide deployment.– Mr S. Iswaran, Minister of Transport
For now, AVs shall remain a distant dream, and children today will probably still pester their parents for driving lessons when they turn 18.
Featured Image Credit: National Parks Board