Public safety the main priority in testing driverless vehicles: Experts, regulator

nuTonomy, the Singapore-based driverless vehicle developer that launched the world’s first driverless taxis testing its cars on the public roads of one-north on Sep 9, 2016. An accident involving one of nuTonomy’s cars and a lorry on October 18 has raised concerns on the safety of these self-driving vehicles. CAMPUS EYE/ Lee Ken Kiat (SINGAPORE)
nuTonomy, the Singapore-based driverless vehicle developer that launched the world’s first driverless taxis testing its cars on the public roads of one-north on Sep 9, 2016. An accident involving one of nuTonomy’s cars and a lorry on October 18 has raised concerns on the safety of these self-driving vehicles. CAMPUS EYE/ Lee Ken Kiat (SINGAPORE)

By Irene Cyrena

Singapore, Dec 15 (CAMPUS EYE) – Road safety will be a priority in the testing of driverless cars in Singapore as the government imposes stringent regulations on developers.

Dr Marcelo H. Ang Jr., chief researcher at the future mobility unit of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology’s (SMART) said the government ensures driverless vehicles are put through a series of rigorous tests before being allowed to run on public roads.

“The main concern is certification… (The government has) even formed a centre called CETRAN at NTU to really look into it,” Ang told Campus Eye.

The Centre of Excellence for Testing and Research of Autonomous Vehicles – NTU (CETRAN) will house a 1.8-hectare test circuit jointly developed by industrial infrastructure developer JTC Corporation and the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

It provides a simulated public road environment to test the vehicles’ ability to follow traffic rules, adapt to traffic conditions, and operate in Singapore’s climate before being deployed for public road tests.

The test circuit will be operational in the second half of 2017.

“Although many countries and cities are testing self-driving vehicles, we have yet to see international standards and regulations suitable for (the) large-scale deployment (of such cars),” said Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo in a press release for the launch event for CETRAN in April this year.

“The launch of CETRAN and the Test Circuit will put Singapore at the global forefront to develop such standards (and) safely integrate self-driving vehicles into our transport system,” she added.

Regulations governing tests of driverless vehicles

Although makers of driverless vehicles have their own timelines for commercialising their services, they are not expected to get the green light to do so until the vehicles show they can safely operate on public roads.

To qualify for public road testing, LTA requires driverless vehicles to be fitted with a data recorder that can capture the date, time and travelling speed of the vehicle while on the road.

They are also required to sport prominent signage that will inform other road users of its testing.

Firms like nuTonomy, the Singapore-based developer of driverless car technology that launched the world’s first driverless taxis, must carry liability insurance.

This ensures they will be responsible for any damage or loss incurred by their vehicles, whether it is caused by themselves or others.

Cameras have been fitted to monitor the trials along the 6-kilometre network of roads earmarked for the testing of such vehicles at one-north.

Doug Parker, chief operating officer of nuTonomy, told Campus Eye the rules will help the development of  driverless vehicles more than impede it.

“There’s a more structured and ordered road system (here) that makes it easier for us to do our jobs… robots like rules,” Parker said.

nuTonomy aims to operate a commercial self-driving taxi service by 2018.

Not as good as human drivers yet

Concerns regarding the safety of driverless vehicles on public roads have emerged following a collision between nuTonomy’s self-driving car with a lorry on October 18 this year.

The trial car was changing lanes when the collision occurred, said LTA in a Facebook post.

Ang said that unlike humans, driverless vehicles lack the instinct to predict the behaviours of other drivers and respond accordingly.

“A lot of things we do so easily cannot be easily broken down into steps (to be programmed into the instructions given to the vehicle)… such as how you enter a roundabout and how you exit a roundabout,” he said.

Ang added that, just like humans, driverless vehicles will improve as it drives more and encounters different situations but those in Singapore still require more experience.

A passenger who participated in the driverless taxi trial conducted by nuTonomy on September 9, however, looks set to embrace the new form of commute.

Frequent taxi user Ken Kanada said, “(With human drivers), the timing of the braking sometimes makes me feel scared or uncomfortable. But, in this vehicle, there’s nothing to (be) afraid about.”

(Additional reporting by Desmond Koh and Lee Ken Kiat, Editing by Desmond Koh and Hadi Lee)

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