Most of us know Singapore for its advanced digital economy. The renowned digital hub is also home to one of the most vibrant technology ecosystems in the Asia Pacific region. Leading technology companies, including FAANG — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google have established a significant presence in the island city-state.
And for a good reason. Singapore’s pro-tech government contributed heavily to their current global standings. The Smart Nation initiatives, among others, have been rolled out to leverage technology solutions to maintain global competitiveness as a developed nation and enhance the livelihood of Singapore citizensi.
One area of national interest is robotics and how it has enabled the country’s vision for driverless vehicles in transportation. Singapore has been an early supporter of automated driving due to its constraints in land and workforce, and is already one of the most autonomous vehicles (AV)-ready countries globally, according to the KPMGii. In its pursuit to improve urban mobility, the government set up the Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore (CARTS). The committee, in charge of spearheading local AV-enabled land transport concepts, went on to sign an MoU with R&D agency A*STAR to set up the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative.
The government even established the first AV test center in 2017 to support the Center of Excellence for AV testing and research. In 2019, Singapore expanded its AV testing area to almost 1,000 km to cover all public roads in the west region. It also started a program to retrain 100 bus drivers as AV safety operators to serve three new towns with driverless buses.
With the third-highest population density in the world that will grow by 30% within 20 years, Singapore can’t keep up by buying more buses or creating more subway lines. In addition, Singapore has an ageing taxi driver population. Data from Southeast Asia’s Grab shows that Singaporean taxi drivers are unlikely to accept a passenger booking request that originates from or leads them to remote locations. The need for more public buses also highlights the labour gap as not many people fancy driving buses at night.
Therefore, Singapore turns to AVs to potentially fill the transportation need while freeing up road space, narrowing down the number of private vehicles and combating the issue of congestion and air pollution. AVs have also become a part of the nation’s land transport master plan to make Singapore a “45-minute city”. They will prove helpful in connecting the last mile journey. There are even plans to design roads in Singapore specifically for driverless cars. Plus, amendments to the Road Traffic Act and the TR68 draft national AV standards' publishing cements the fact that Singapore is more than serious about this.[iii]
The first trial for self-driving buses occurred back in 2015, and since then, several other attempts have been conducted, including driverless taxis developed by nuTonomy. The MIT spin-off technology startup conducted the world’s first public trial for self-driving taxi services in a partnership with Grab several days ahead of Uber in Pittsburgh. The company gave out several no-cost rides on a by-invitation-only basis within a 2.5 square mile radius in Singapore’s ‘one-north’ business district. The ‘robo-taxi’ services used six modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV equipped with proprietary self-driving software, integrated high-performance sensing, six sets of LIDAR devices – including one that constantly spins on the roof, and two dashboard cameras to measure changes in traffic lights and provide a 360-degree object detection view.
nuTonomy works closely with the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), which focuses on improving quality of life with technology. According to nuTonomy, Singapore is the perfect place for the technology, iterating that the regulatory environment, infrastructure, driving habits, traffic rules obeyance, and the weather could help the country reduce the number of on-road cars from 900,000 to 300,000iv. This would replace almost 780,000 traditional taxis while ensuring waiting times of below 15 minutes.
Other similar trials in Singapore involve driverless buggies in the Jurong Lake District and the autonomous shuttle bus from the NTU campus to Cleantech Park, among others. More recently, ST Engineering, SMRT and SBS Transit operated a three-month trial for their self-driving bus service that takes passengers around Singapore’s Science Park and Jurong Island during off-peak hours for only SGD 0.20 (USD 0.15).
There is no questioning that fast and reliable communication networks build the foundation for driverless vehicles to operate on. AVs regularly collect and capture environmental data from built-in cameras and sensors before making a fully independent decision on navigation, especially in unexpected traffic conditions.
5G is a core facilitator to this autonomous feature, especially its holy trinity of speed, latency, and reliability. High-speed connectivity is essential to build awareness of traffic information and enables AVs to chase the city’s ‘green-wave’. Here, quick data processing and pre-emptive decision-making are paramount, especially when AVs move at higher speeds. Ultra-reliable low latency communication (uRLLC) unlocks the ability for AVs to receive, process and convert data into prompt decisions, all within a fraction of seconds.
Rapid data processing is crucial in both short and long-distance vehicle-to-everything (V2X), as it helps amplify key safety AV features. AVs often use onboard connectivity solutions to link their computers to the manufacturer’s network. It is critical that AVs do not send all the data back to central data centres for processing as this consumes valuable seconds needed in making quick, autonomous decisions.
The deployment of 5G-enabled edge computing significantly minimises the response times in AVs, as edge servers can process time-sensitive data using 5G’s lower latency and high computing capabilities. The rest travels back to remote servers. This allows for new uses cases such as sending hazard alerts in car-to-car communication and enhanced battery efficiency as car analytics occur off-the-vehicle.
The challenge, however, is coverage. By nature, 5G frequencies struggle to reach areas previously in the scope of network generation, which means that more infrastructure is needed, especially on busy roads. Operators will need a mere 10x denser infrastructure to provide adequate coveragev. Hence, the mmWave frequency for 5G will be strongest in large cities over the next 5 to 10 years as telecom service providers install small cells at scale. Expect AVs to provide better experiences in urban areas as governments invest in smart city initiatives.
Automation of vehicles doesn’t happen overnight. Reliable and fully automated driving is the final stage of a rather lengthy process. Innovations such as intelligent assistance and autonomous steering will come and go, while many new features come online. But one thing is certain; 5G will be the piece that completes the puzzle.
That is exactly what Singapore is building on. GovTech has begun around ten trials under the 5G@Sentosa project, including those to operate autonomous vehicles using high-speed 5G links. The government body will look to increase the number of tests on 5G uses cases to 30 by the first half of 2023. As APAC 5G investments pick up (~78% of companies are investing or planning to invest within the next two to three years), the technology will continue to play a significant role for autonomous vehicles to become a reality, not only for Singapore, but globallyvi.