Singapore wants new laws to keep up with autonomous, ride-sharing vehicles

With public trials already running in the country, the Singapore government is looking to update local laws to better safeguard commuters in driverless and ride-sharing vehicles.

Singapore is looking to update its transport laws to keep pace with technological developments and better safeguard commuters in autonomous as well as ride-sharing vehicles.

The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill was featured for a second reading in parliament this week, detailing changes that, among others, would set time and space limits on trials involving driverless vehicles as well as establish design standards for equipment used in such vehicles. Developers involved in these tests also would be required to share data, said Singapore's Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng, during the parliament session.

The proposed regulatory changes also would exclude autonomous vehicles and their operators as well as those running or involved in such trials from the country's existing Road Traffic Act.

Ng said: "As this is emerging technology, the provisions will provide the flexibility needed to assess the appropriate regulatory response more quickly. We have limited this regulatory sandbox to five years. At the end of these five years, the ministry will consider enacting more permanent legislation, or return to parliament to further extend the period of the sandbox."

Public trials involving driverless vehicles including public buses already are running on Singapore roads. A crash late last year involving an autonomous car owned by local startup, nuTonomy, raised concerns about road safety. No injuries were reported in the accident, in which two engineers were in the vehicle.

Asked what would happen in the event of an accident involving autonomous vehicles, Ng noted that because the technology still was not matured, accidents would be inevitable during trials. This, he added, underscored the need for LTA to establish a regulatory framework to "minimise the possibility" of accidents.

"First, autonomous vehicles must demonstrate basic roadworthiness and capabilities by passing safety assessments before they are even trialled on roads," he said. "Second, developers must have robust accident mitigation plans for trials. This includes having a safety driver trained to swiftly take control of the vehicle whenever necessary."

He added that drivers involved in the trials must have a Class 3 licence, with a blemish-free traffic violation history. Vehicles would be permitted to move without safety drivers if the developers were able to prove the competency of the autonomous vehicles "to LTA's full satisfaction", the minister said.

He added that trials would commence only on roads with light traffic, with vehicles allowed to move to more complex environments when they had proven to have higher competency.

According to Ng, operators running trials would be required to log all travel data to facilitate investigations and liability claims in the event of an incident.

In a statement Tuesday, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said autonomous vehicle technology could improve the country's transport infrastructure where self-driving buses, for example, could plug shortage of bus drivers. On-demand autonomous vehicles also could enhance the first and last mile of public transport journeys, ferrying commuters between train stations and their homes.

The transport regulator said it had been supporting trials involving autonomous vehicles, at designated areas within Singapore, since 2015. With such technology evolving rapidly, it noted that rules governing tests for driverless vehicles must be able to quickly adapt to changes.

"The proposed amendments to the Road Traffic Act will give LTA the flexibility to create and amend rules to facilitate autonomous vehicle trials on public roads, as and when needed, while ensuring the safety of road users," it said.

Local laws also would need to recognise motor vehicles that might not necessarily have human drivers.

Describing autonomous vehicles as "inevitable disruptions", Ng said such vehicles were becoming a reality on Singapore roads, even if mainstream rollout was some 10 or 15 years away. This meant professionals affected by the changes would need to be ready for the new landscape.

"Progressively, the government will put in place programmes to help Singaporeans who drive for a living, acquire new skills and take on higher value-added jobs in an autonomous vehicle world," he said. "Rather than impede the adoption of technologies beneficial to all Singaporeans, we should focus our efforts on helping the transport workforce adapt to these inevitable disruptions."

Ride-sharing drivers to be licensed

LTA also announced plans for new laws that would require ride-sharing drivers to be have the necessary vocational licenses as well as be adequately insured. It said private hire car drivers also would need to display "a tamper-evident decal" on the vehicles used in providing such services.

Operators of ride-sharing services could be fined up to S$10,000 each time a driver was caught in violation of the new rules, and issued a suspension notice if their drivers committed three or more instances of major offences within a year. Such violations would include providing private hire car services without valid vocational licenses, using unlicensed private hire cars to offer such services, as well as using private hire cars without adequate insurance to offer such services.

During the suspension period, any driver caught driving for the ride-sharing operator would be slapped with fines of up to S$1,000 or jailed for up to three months or both. Repeat offenders would face fines of up to S$2,000 or jail sentences of up to six months or both. Their vocational licenses also could be suspended by revoked, according to LTA.

The new regulations would impact operators such as Grab and Uber in Singapore.