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Singapore Wants a Driverless Version of Uber

Singapore plans to let anyone test driverless cars in one of its busy neighborhoods in 2015.

Driverless cars could help reduce congestion and pollution—or increase it.

As driverless cars edge slowly toward commercial reality, some people are wondering how cities might change as a result. Will traffic lights disappear? Will parking garages become obsolete? Will carpooling become the norm?

This electric car, retrofitted to drive itself, is being tested in Singapore.

Singapore is keen to find out. The city-state will open one of its neighborhoods to driverless cars in 2015, with the idea that such vehicles could operate as a kind of jitney service, picking up passengers and taking them to trains or other modes of public transportation. The vehicles might be like golf carts, taking people short distances at low speeds, similar to the driverless vehicles demonstrated this year by Google (see “Lazy Humans Shaped Google’s New Autonomous Car”).

Lam Wee Shann, director of the futures division for Singapore’s Ministry of Transport, said during a panel held at MIT last month that the government wants to explore whether autonomous vehicles could reduce congestion and remake the city into one built around walking, bicycling, and public transit.

“Singapore welcomes industry and academia to deploy automated vehicles for testing under real traffic conditions on public roads,” Lam said in a follow-up e-mail interview. He declined to say whether Google or any other companies pursuing driverless cars have contacted Singapore yet.

At 700 square kilometers, Singapore is about three times the size of Boston, but it has 5.5 million residents versus Boston’s 646,000. Because it is so dense, Singapore is aggressively trying to discourage car traffic. For example, if you want to own a car in Singapore you have to pay a “certificate of entitlement” fee that’s roughly equal to the price of a car. It also offers free travel on city trains before peak periods (along with free breakfast vouchers).

Through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, the city has had pilot tests of driverless cars for several years, starting with two driverless golf carts on the campus of the National University of Singapore. This year it added a Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car, retrofitted to be autonomous. A driverless bus called the Navia is used as a shuttle at Singapore’s Cleantech eco-industrial park and on campus at Nanyang Technology University.

All of these experiments “provide first-and-last mile connectivity to main public transport nodes,” Lam said.

This fall, people in Singapore were able to try out driverless cars for the first time. Driverless buggies were deployed in the Chinese and Japanese gardens in the Jurong Lake District. The system featured an online booking system and vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The buggies ran for two weekends, and carried 500 people over 400 kilometers in total.

Cities with driverless cars could eventually eliminate mainstays like traffic lights. Paolo Santi, a senior researcher with the MIT/Fraunhofer ambient mobility initiative, said at the MIT event that his lab has done simulations showing that twice as many driverless cars could route themselves through intersections, easing congestion and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions caused by stop-and-go driving. Santi hopes to carry out experiments in Singapore to see how pedestrians and bikes affect driverless cars at intersections.

Many challenges remain. On the panel at MIT, Nhai Cao, a senior global product line manager at TomTom, a navigation vendor, noted that, “current maps are not good enough for autonomous vehicles.” Driverless cars, he said, need maps that are three-dimensional and accurate to within 20 centimeters. 

Lam also noted that if driverless cars are available to everyone, that could translate into more people taking car trips. “An autonomous vehicle could add on a lot more road trips, and we can ill afford that,” he said. 

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