This week, Swedish carmaker Volvo brought reporters and industry insiders to the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) campus in Singapore to unveil its new autonomous bus, which it says is the first of its kind in the world.
The 12-metre fully electric bus made its first public appearance after “rigorous testing”; the company said that its use on the NTU campus was one of its first tests on “designated public roads”. It will start tests properly on the campus in “a few weeks to months”, Reuters said – and it will later move on to public roads if regulators give it the nod, according to NTU President Subra Suresh.
This bus, and another like it, is packed with sensors and navigation controls, all managed by what it calls a “comprehensive artificial intelligence system” and protected by some heavy-duty cybersecurity.
With a maximum capacity of 80 passengers, Volvo and the university hope that the bus could prompt the start of real life, large scale use of autonomous vehicles in the city-state. Håkan Agnevall, president of Volvo Buses, told reporters, according to Reuters, that the bus is the “type of vehicle that real operators would use and that’s why it is a milestone”.
Singapore, Reuters says, hopes to have autonomous vehicles on public roads in three districts from 2022. According to Reuters, the country’s dense population and infrastructure has made the country an ideal environment for driverless technology. The government has been encouraging that, Reuters says, and hopes that residents will increase their shared vehicle and public transport usage.
The city of the future
The city-state of Singapore ranks number two in a KPMG study of how ready various countries are for autonomous vehicles. That study, titled the 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, looks at 25 individual measures in 25 different countries to give those locations a single number rating that describes how ready that country is for autonomous vehicles.
Importantly, the report notes that it uses autonomous vehicles to refer to “vehicles that can do everything a traditional vehicle does without human intervention, sometimes described as ‘level 5 automation’, where vehicles are fully self-driving and the human driver becomes a passenger”. Top of the list, above Singapore, sits the Netherlands.
The consultancy did its first study on autonomous vehicle readiness last year, and at that time it felt like a “conversation in its infancy”, KPMG said.
Since then, the firm says, the world has witnessed a “huge acceleration in investment in AV technology, in policy adoption by governments to encourage autonomous vehicles, and in media coverage of the topic. Countries and states including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, France and California have passed or are passing legislation opening AVs’ access to public roads. Trials are underway from Singapore to Madrid to Gothenburg.”
What countries can do to help driverless cars
The key for the top two countries in their success differs somewhat: the Netherlands, KPMG says, has benefitted from its “European leadership in transport public policy”, while Singapore has succeeded because of its “brilliance in attracting investment from global technology leaders”.
Something else that Singapore has done is create a driverless vehicles “test town”, with traffic lights, bus stops, skyscrapers and a rain machine to recreate its wet, tropical seasons.
The study notes that as well as technical and practical measures like that need to be complemented by policy. “Countries that lead in technology and innovation tend to have mid-level scores in their AV regulatory environment and institutions. Adapting and revisiting regulations and establishing an AV-focused institution could take these countries to the top of the rankings,” it says.
That seems like an important lesson for all new technology – it’s not just the tech, it’s the environment in which it works. Companies can bear that in mind, too. Picking the right market could be half the battle, which means that for those working in the industry, a tech job can take you all over the world.