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Buses will be next stop for Singapore's self-driving trials

These buses are expected to ferry passengers within a university in early 2017

(Standing, left to right) LTA chief executive Chew Men Leong, Senior Minister of State for Transport Ng Chee Meng and Prof Lam from NTU. (Seated, left to right) LTA's deputy chief executive for infrastructure and development, Chua Chong Kheng, and NTU's college of engineering dean, Chen Tsuhan.


SINGAPORE is planning to roll out self-driving buses on its roads in a few months' time, even as the world's first-ever self-driving taxi trial launched on its shores just weeks ago has been suspended.

First to try out these driverless buses are the staff and students of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). In the first half of 2017, up to 15 of them will be able to ride in one of these two 12-metre long hybrid self-driving buses, which are expected to pick up passengers within the NTU campus. The trial will then expand to about 40 passengers.

They will then start serving commuters in the CleanTech Park next to NTU, and then possibly to Pioneer MRT station, said Lam Khin Yong, NTU's chief of staff and vice-president for research.

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Details of the trial come just two days after an accident involving a driverless taxi in the one-north business area in Singapore's west. The taxi was part of a trial that was launched in late August. It was touted to be world's first driverless taxi trial to run in an open environment.

The taxi, developed by nuTonomy, was involved in an accident with a lorry on Tuesday. No one was injured. Investigations are ongoing. As a result, the trial was suspended on Wednesday to assist investigations. NuTonomy is expected to make a statement soon, The Business Times understands

But even as Singapore's self-driving taxi trial hits a road bump, driverless buses are getting the green light.

The groundwork for the self-driving bus trial was laid on Wednesday when the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and NTU's Energy Research Institute (ERI) inked a partnership to embark on this trial.

The trial aims to see how such self-driving modes of transport can be deployed for fixed and scheduled services for commuting within and in between different neighbourhoods.

There are benefits from having self-driving buses. For one, it alleviates manpower pressures for operators. It also allows for more efficient use of buses. The self-driving ones can be deployed during off-peak hours on routes chosen based on demand and the fastest possible route, said LTA. This alleviates traffic congestion.

It can also help avoid fatigue in drivers, thereby enhance safety, according to German carmaker Mercedes-Benz. Just a few months ago, it deployed a prototype of its semi-autonomous Future Bus on a 20-km closed-circuit route in Amsterdam.

ERI will install buses with sensors and develop an autonomous system that can navigate Singapore's local road traffic and climate conditions so that these driverless buses can operate safely and efficiently.

Travelling at up to 40 kilometres per hour, these buses are expected to be equipped with sensing systems like light-sensing radar, global positioning system receivers, night vision cameras and computing units to help the buses navigate Singapore's roads.

They will also be equipped with charging technology so that whenever passengers get on and off at a bus depot or bus stop, these buses can recharge themselves.

Talks are ongoing with two bus manufacturers to get these buses ready for the trial, said Prof Lam.

But don't expect the general public to be able to hop onto these buses in the near future, though. Said Prof Lam: "This programme is for two years. We hope, maybe after that, we can decide whether to implement it." "It's up to LTA and the bus operator to decide," he added.

Prof Lam also alluded to the fact that self-driving buses may be more manageable than driverless cars. This is because buses often ply a fixed route, whereas car drivers choose from a myriad of routes.

He also stressed on the importance of safety in the self-driving bus trial. As such, there will be a back-up driver on these driverless buses until they are "very confident". The driver will also be there to monitor data on these buses.

"I have to emphasise that safety is a big concern for us, we've to make sure that things go according to plan, and also plan for things which are unexpected," said Prof Lam.