How Deep Tech is Pushing Singapore’s Future in Autonomous Driving
Self-driving vehicles have the potential to transform public mobility, freight transport, and utility services, but technical expertise is needed to make the technology fully road-ready
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The automobile has come a long way from the motor car patented by Carl Benz almost a century and a half ago.
Today, self-driving cars seem to have leapt out of the pages of science fiction and onto the streets of select cities in Europe, the US, and Asia. Singapore, one of the pioneers in this space, is hoping deep tech could get more autonomous vehicles on the road. These vehicles, which are also described as “self-driving” or “driverless,” have the potential to transform not just public mobility, but also industrial and utility services transportation.
But there’s work to be done. Specifically, technical expertise is needed to optimise sensors and operating systems.
In Singapore, there are several companies working on helping autonomous vehicles see and move better.
Movel AI, for instance, uses advanced computer vision and sensor fusion to help robots navigate their environment, especially in challenging areas such as airports, shopping malls, and factories. Their technology uses cameras rather than LiDAR sensors, which are significantly more expensive and are thus more difficult to apply in the commercial space, founders Bai Haoyu and Abhishek Gupta tell The Straits Times.
Sense Photonics, on the other hand, dives deep into advanced LiDAR and 3D sensor development. Founded in 2016 in Research Triangle Park, NC and supported by SGInnovate, the company provides solutions for autonomous vehicles, industrial automation, UAVs, and other applications. According to the company, their core technology is protected by over 200 patents and provides a solid-state solution with no moving parts.
Vebits, another startup based in Singapore, focuses on making roads safer for both manned and unmanned vehicles through geo-spatial big data, mobile situational awareness, driver behaviour monitoring, and traffic surveys. The company targets local bus companies as well as fleet companies.
While cars may have vastly evolved, mobility itself has not changed much in the past hundred years. People still spend enormous amounts of time behind the wheel and money on fuel, more and more cars are vying for space on already-congested urban roads, and accidents are a regular occurrence.
As of 2015, there are 1.2 billion cars worldwide, each year covering a total distance of 16.1 trillion kilometres and consuming 1.893 billion litres of fuel worth approximately $1.5 trillion, according to authors of “Autonomous Driving: How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the World.” Drivers spend about 400 billion hours in transit each year, and only about 1.1% of a car’s seating capacity is utilised in a day. Every year, there are 1.25 million traffic deaths and 50 million traffic injuries.
It is these gaps in mobility that many believe autonomous vehicles could address.
For instance, they could lower the likelihood of accidents caused by human error. Andreas Herrmann — director of the Institute for Customer Insight at the University of St. Gallen, head of the Audi Lab for Market Research, and co-author of the aforementioned book — says in this video that driver error accounts for a staggering 94% of road accidents around the world. Robots, on the other hand, can make up to 90% fewer mistakes because they can perform finely calibrated manoeuvres.
In Singapore, the Traffic Police reports that there were 118 cases of fatal accidents in 2017, and elderly pedestrians and motorcyclists remain the most vulnerable groups. Although the country’s road traffic fatality rate has been dropping steadily since 2010, the police point out that “every accident or death is one too many, and more can be done to prevent tragedies on our roads.”
Roads can also accommodate 500% more vehicles, says Herrmann, if only autonomous vehicles are on the road. Infrastructure takes up about 40% of urban areas. However, because of improved traffic flow, less roads may be needed in the future and cities could focus land development on more essential things. This is especially important for small cities such as Singapore.
Industrial and utility service applications
Aside from its applications in public transport, autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform freight transportation and utility services. This could address manpower issues as well as traffic congestion problems by deploying vehicles at night rather than during peak hours.
The Land Transport Authority, for instance, is working with several companies to develop autonomous truck platooning solutions for the transport of containers between port terminals. The agency is also looking into self-driving utility vehicles for road sweeping and waste collection.
While a future where all cars are driverless may be many years away, if at all possible, there is no question that autonomous vehicles can help ease many of our existing traffic woes.
For more information on autonomous vehicles and other deep tech topics, visit the SGInnovate website.