Aerial photo of the Center of Excellence for Testing & Research of Autonomous Vehicles (Cetran) in Singapore.
With permission from Nanyang Technological University
SINGAPORE – The buggy takes off on the track and moves very slowly. Nobody controls it, but the wheel spins and the vehicle negotiates a left turn.
As led by a first-time driver, the driverless buggy moves back and forth before stopping abruptly when a pedestrian on the sidewalk gets closer to the road.
This is where autonomous vehicles in Singapore are tested ̵
Singapore seeks to become a "smart nation" "by using digital technology to boost the economy and improve public services. One such project is the development of autonomous vehicles, in short AVs. It aims to have autonomous buses to public roads in three districts around the island in the early 2020s.
The coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to disrupt these plans, according to Satya Ramamurthy, head of infrastructure, government and health at KPMG in Singapore.
"We do not see that Covid-19 makes the pressure on (AV) somewhat less important, "he said, adding that self-driving cars provide" meaningful solutions "to job challenges in the Asian economic hub.
In addition, Ramamurthy said there has been a shift in preferences from public transport to private alternatives in light of the coronavirus health crisis. Autonomous vehicles are still "very relevant" to reduce the risk of transmission, he added.
The country seems to be doing re progress towards their driverless ambitions. In a KPMG survey in 2020 on how clear countries are for autonomous vehicles, Singapore came first – up from second place in 2019.
But experts say there are still some lessons to be learned as Singapore continues to develop autonomous vehicles.
They include how to deal with heavy rain, how to recognize when waiting passengers signal that buses should stop, and how buses can brake while ensuring passenger safety. There are also plans to test autonomous vehicles at night and on motorways.
"How to assess all possible risk scenarios is really the challenge from the test perspective," said Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, Executive Director of the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological. University. Researchers from the university run Cetran together with the Land Transport Authority (LTA), a government agency in Singapore.
An autonomous buggy at the Cetran Test Center (Center of Excellence for Testing & Research of Autonomous Vehicles) in Singapore.
Ana Nicolaci da Costa for CNBC
One of the country's goals is to ease the pressure of a growing and aging population on roads by using autonomous vehicles to increase public transport.
"We are a small country and land is always a limitation," said Lam Wee Shann, head of innovation and transportation technology at LTA. "Meeting (the different needs of our commuters is one of the challenges we face in transportation."
The idea is to have autonomous vehicles on request in the "first and last mile" of a commute, such as the distance between the train station to home, or from the train station to work, said NTU's Mhaisalkar. This will help minimize the commuter's 'pain points', such as unsafe and long waiting times for connections.
night, as the city seeks to ease traffic congestion, the LTA said.
As Singapore prepares for autonomous buses to debut on public roads in the coming years, the government will expand the area where autonomous vehicles can be tested – from some sites currently, to the whole of western Singapore.This was in response to "industry feedback that a more diverse test environment will help accelerate technology development the blade, "LTA said last year.
Self-driving cars must still be tested on Cetran before they are approved for testing on public roads.  The scope of the pilot deployment, whether full-scale or part of it, depends on the readiness of the technologies, as well as whether the public accepts it as a mode of transport.
Lam Wee Shann
Land Transport Authority