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In test driving driverless public transport, Singapore shouldn't forget the basics

The Singapore government wants to trial self-driving public transport in 2016, but with maintenance oversight the cause of a system malfunction earlier this year, it will need to get the basics right before seeking public trust in its use of advanced technology.

Singapore's Transport Ministry and Land Transport Authority (LTA) have unveiled plans to start trialling self-driving vehicles, heralding the initiative as a way to transform the country's public transport system. In its attempts at tapping new technology, however, the government shouldn't overlook the need to first get the basics right.

The Ministry of Transport said in a statement on Monday that approval had been granted for self-driving technology to be tested on public roads, specifically, in the one-north business park spanning 200 hectares. The trials will be carried out by the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R) under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART).

To ensure the safety of the test drives, all vehicle prototypes would be fitted with data loggers to record information such as vehicle speed and travel route. LTA also would be deploying support infrastructure along the test route, stretching 6km, to monitor the trials as well as "vehicle-to-infrastructure" systems to improve the awareness of the self-driving vehicles. These would include a CCTV camera system to "allow LTA to monitor and study" the behaviour of the vehicles at locations, such as traffic junctions and road bends, as well as provide evidence for use in an investigation should there be a mishap.

Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) beacons also would be deployed at designated locations to improve the vehicle's way-finding ability via the broadcast of information such as traffic conditions. A backend system would be used to analyse data generated by the test vehicles, and signages and decals would be erected within the one-north site and on test vehicles to inform other road users of the trials.

LTA added in a Facebook post that it was working towards the government's "vision of using self-driving vehicles to transform Singapore's transport system". This included the possibility of deploying self-driving buses on fixed routes and scheduled timings, with the aim to ease "heavy reliance" on manpower.

Singapore's Permanent Secretary for Transport Pang Kin Keong said: "Self-driving vehicles can radically transform land transportation in Singapore to address our two key constraints -- land and manpower. The trials will help us shape the mobility concepts which can meet Singapore's needs, and also gain valuable insights into how we can design our towns of the future to take advantage of this technology."

LTA said a Request for Information had been called, with eight proposals submitted. These were currently being evaluated and expected to be finalised in the first quarter of 2016, with the first trials to begin in the second half of next year.

According to the Transport Ministry, three other self-driving vehicle pilots had been planned for Gardens by the Bay, West Coast Highway, and Sentosa. These trials would include autonomous truck platooning for transporting cargo between port terminals, and self-driving shuttles targeted for use by visitors and staff members at Sentosa.

Fundamentals still important in any new technology

Ironically, barely a day after this announcement was made, MRT stations along the North East Line were struck by a power failure Tuesday during morning peak hour. Train services at seven stops were disrupted due to the blackout, which left commuters in darkness at train platforms on the North East Line.

This comes just a day after Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in a blogpost called for the need to establish "comprehensive contingency plans for breakdowns", including regular walk-throughs and live rehearsals to ensure smoother execution of such plans when disruptions occurred.

And these, it seems, have become somewhat commonplace in Singapore's mass transit system over the past few years, with the biggest fine of S$5.4 million meted out to rail operator SMRT for a massive breakdown on July 7, 2015.

The incident brought down the heavily-used North-South and East-West Lines, affecting more than 413,000 commuters and lasting more than two hours during evening peak hour. SMRT was found to have failed to meet the requirements outlined by the Code of Practice, requiring the operator to inform LTA of power trips in a timely manner.

More importantly, critical maintenance lapses were identified on the part of SMRT, which had detected a water leak at a tunnel section during a check in mid-June 2015, but addressed this issue only in end-July. The wet environment as well as mineral deposits along the tunnel, which also went undetected by SMRT, had affected the effectiveness of the insulator, eventually causing the power outage.

These lapses occurred despite a previous hefty fine of S$2 million, again on SMRT, for two service disruptions on December 15 and 17, 2011, which affected the same two lines on North-South and East-West. Again, SMRT was found to have breached its licensing obligations and failed to exercise due diligence in ensuring the rail network was maintained in good condition.

In the deployment of any technology, new and old, the fundamentals still apply -- standard operating procedures not only should be put in place, they also should be adhered to at all times. If an "old", established technology like the country's mass transit system can fail repeatedly because the basic rules and operations were not properly observed again and again, can the public be expected to trust the reliability, and safety, of a system run by new technology?

If the Singapore government hopes to attain its "vision" of transforming the national public transport system, it needs to first ensure the basics are firmly in place.

And this may require looking beyond simply building a network filled with CCTVs and monitoring systems to "study" the behaviour of new technology. Perhaps these could be extended to monitor the maintenance of rails and tunnels, in which alerts would be automatically sent to LTA should SMRT fail to detect and fix a water leak in a timely fashion? Sensors, which already feature widely in Singapore's smart nation vision, also could be deployed to track mineral deposits and, again, remotely send out alerts to LTA should SMRT fail to act on the issue promptly?

Wouldn't that also help transform the public transport system?