Singapore expands test site for autonomous vehicles

All of the island's western area now has been designated a trial site for autonomous vehicles, spanning more than 1,000km of public roads, as the government looks to address industry calls for a more varied test environment.

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(Source: LTA)

Singapore has opened up more land on which autonomous vehicles can be trialled and assessed, as it looks to address industry calls for a more varied test environment. The government hopes this will support "robust testing" of such vehicles as a potential safe mode of transport for inter-town services as well as longer journeys.

Spanning more than 1,000km of public roads, the expanded test area also would help pave the way for Singapore's planned pilot deployment of autonomous vehicles at the turn of the next decade, said the Land Transport Authority in a statement Thursday. On-road trials for such vehicles had been running since 2015. 

The industry regulator said the designated test site within which makers of autonomous vehicles could apply to run tests would extend beyond current sites, such as Buono Vista, Jurong Island, and Sentosa, to cover the entire western area of Singapore. This would allow for on-road testing of a wider range of road conditions and traffic scenarios, LTA said. 

"The introduction of autonomous vehicle trials is expected to take place gradually over the next several years in a small-scale, incremental manner," the regulator said, noting the deployment of such trials would remain subjected to its approval. "As is the case today, any new trials will begin in a limited manner within a small area. Any further expansions in trials will only be permitted after the autonomous vehicles pass stringent tests designed to demonstrate a higher level of competency."

According to LTA, these vehicles still would have to undergo a "thorough" safety assessment before they were approved for trials on public roads and must carry a safety driver who would take over control of the vehicle when necessary. 

Passenger safety was paramount amidst the development of autonomous vehicle so as not to erode public acceptance of the technology, which was a key success factor for the widespread adoption, said Janil Puthucheary, Singapore's Senior Minister of State at the Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Communications and Information. 

To facilitate trials, he said the government introduced a regulatory sandbox to better enable LTA to create and amend rules governing autonomous mobility activities in the city-state.

In January, Singapore released national standards to guide the local industry in the "safe" development and rollout of autonomous vehicles, outlining guidelines related to vehicle behaviour, functional safety, cybersecurity, and data formats. Called Technical Reference 68 (TR 68), the standards were developed over the past year by various representatives from the autonomous vehicle sector, research and education institutions, and government agencies. 

Such initiatives and improvements such as the expanded test site were important in Singapore's strategy and roadmap to promulgate autonomous vehicle on the island, said Puthucheary, who was speaking Thursday at the Autonomous Mobility Summit. 

Autonomous mobility offered significant potential to reduce congestion and emissions, make transport more accessible and efficient, and improve road safety, the minister said. In particular, he said, Singapore was enthusiastic about developments in this space, as research moved from passenger cars to larger capacity vehicles such as buses and trucks and into areas such as last-mile logistics. 

"Autonomous shuttles could radically transform mobility by enabling more efficient dynamically-routed or on-demand forms of shared transport, and have greater potential for realising the promise that full autonomy could bring," he noted.

Pointing to the country's plans for a pilot deployment of such vehicles for public transport across three residential towns -- Punggol, Jurong Innovation District, and Tengah -- in the early 2020s, the minister said the various trials and efforts would offer more insights into the operations of autonomous vehicles at the town-level as well as the infrastructural requirements for such deployments. 

Autonomous shuttle buses in July began picking up passengers on Singapore roads as part of a year-long study to assess the commercial viability of such services. Operated by local transport company ComfortDelgro, the driverless NUSmart Shuttle sits up to 12 passengers and operates on weekdays along a predefined route. 

Earlier in March, Nanyang Technological University and Volvo Buses kicked off trials involving a full-size autonomous electric bus that stretched 12 metres long and can accommodate up to 80 passengers. The single-deck Volvo 7900 Electric bus was part of a scheme under LTA to develop and run driverless bus trials for fixed route and scheduled services. 

Air taxis take flight over Marina bay

In a separate announcement this week, Volocopter said it had completed its first manned flight over Singapore's Marina Bay area, completing a series of trials to assess the ability of its air taxis to fly over the site. 

Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter said: "A 2X model of the company's test series flown by a pilot onboard was used. The flight covered a distance of approximately 1.5km and lasted for two minutes at an average cruising height of 40m.

"We are showcasing a prototype of our full-scale VoloPort Infrastructure, allowing for a realistic demonstration of air taxi boarding and maintenance services," Reuter said. 

Volocopter said, alongside its partner Skyports, it built the first VoloPort prototype on then floating dock in Marina Bay. These structures were the only physical infrastructure required for air taxis, it said, adding that it worked with government agencies on the Singapore flight trials, including the Ministry of Transport, Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, and Economic Development Board.

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