By Terence Teoh
SINGAPORE, Oct 11 (Campus Eye) – With driverless technology getting increasingly sophisticated and driverless taxis possibly plying Singapore roads as soon as 2018, some passengers and a union representing taxi drivers say there will always be a role for taxi drivers.
Such roles include providing empathy in stressful situations and physical assistance to passengers. These added touches may become especially necessary during the rainy season when technology is less reliable.
Chloe Wong, 22, an undergraduate from NUS Faculty of Business said: “I was running late for an A-level exam. It was a rainy day and I was drenched trying to hail a cab, but just as I was going to give up and take a bus, a taxi made a U-turn and came to pick me up.”
“I later found out that he was en-route to somewhere else but he saw me and guessed that I had the A-level examinations that day, so he turned around to get me,” said Wong. “I couldn’t thank him enough.”
Tense situations, like rushing for an exam, are common.
“There are two groups of people who take taxis. Those who habitually take taxis, and those who are in a rush,” said Toh Tiam Sai, a veteran taxi driver.
Still, companies are rushing to test driverless technology on public roads. Nutonomy was the first company in the world to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in Singapore earlier this year.
A spokesperson of Nutonomy said: “We target the launch of a commercial service in 2018.”
PUSHING FOR GOOD SERVICE
The taxi community understands that providing good service is its comparative advantage.
The National Taxi Association (NTA), a group representing 19,000 drivers, or 19 percent of the sector in Singapore, has always urged its members to improve their service to serve increasingly demanding passengers.
“We continually encourage all taxi drivers to improve their service. That is one advantage we have over driverless cars,” said Henry Tay, Deputy Secretary of NTA.
“Currently, we are holding focus group discussions to develop ideas to improve our service and collect stories of taxi drivers going the extra mile,” said Tay who has been plying the taxi trade for 9 years.
Tay recounts that, once, he had to collect and deliver a passport because a customer had forgotten to bring it to the airport.
“The person’s domestic helper could not leave the house, so he instructed me to collect the passport and meet him at the airport. He even sent me a photo of himself.”
NTA hopes to eventually share such stories with other drivers so that the taxi community may understand passengers better and improve their service.
Physically less mobile passengers make up a group of customers who find the human touch valuable.
“Many times, [taxi drivers] have to help the elderly into the vehicle or help vacation-goers with their luggage,” said Koh Choon Huat, a taxi driver for more than 15 years.
“There was once I even helped a drunk partygoer off the road because she simply laid dangerously by the road after getting off the taxi,” said Koh in Mandarin.
Human-driven taxis may also be valuable on days with bad weather.
“Currently, autonomous vehicles use a system called LIDAR to detect its surroundings,” said by Professor David Hsu, Vice Dean of NUS School of Computing.
“It doesn’t work as well in rain and snow or when there are black objects and mirrors.”
LIDAR is an acronym for “Light Detection and Ranging” which is a sensor that measures the distance to an object, like other cars, by illuminating that target with a laser light and receiving the feedback.
LIDAR is used in helping autonomous vehicles detect and avoid obstacles but is less effective in situations where the laser is deflected or absorbed.
Still, driverless cars are built to safely operate in light to medium rain while navigating dense, complex urban environments, according to Nutonomy.
Hsu said simulations and testing done on these cars are helpful but imperfect.
“A model is only an approximation of the reality,” Hsu said.
“For instance, if another car wants to hit you, he will succeed for sure,” Hsu said with a laugh.
Yet, some autonomous vehicle programs have been shown to meet high safety standards.
“The performance [of some programs] have been considered to be very reliable,” Hsu said.
Nevertheless, some passengers may be too afraid to take a driverless car regularly despite the high levels of safety requirements.
“I would be too scared to take one and I’m sure parents won’t like their children to take a ride from a driverless car either,” said Toh.
Still, driverless taxis may serve a different segment of passengers from taxi drivers.
According to a press release by Nutonomy, driverless cars may pick up passengers from remote places like Jurong Island and Tuas where taxi drivers are reluctant to go.