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Technology

Singapore hosts Asia's first driverless truck

Trial program begins as government pushes for autonomous vehicles

A trial program for Asia's first driverless truck, according to Belgian logistics company Katoen Natie, began at an ExxonMobil chemical plant in Singapore on Tuesday.

SINGAPORE -- At an ExxonMobil plant in Singapore's chemical industry hub on Jurong Island, situated on the southwest corner of the city-state, Asia's first driverless truck began operating on Tuesday morning.

The truck, which was loaded with roughly 30 tons of plastic resin, is a pilot program by a Belgian logistics company and captures Singapore's vision of having autonomous vehicles in industry sectors -- as well as public transportation -- to boost efficiency.

Initially, the truck will move bags of polymer from a packaging center to a storage facility about 3km away, all within the plant site. The company, Katoen Natie, plans to add 11 additional driverless trucks in the same chemical plant, the largest on Jurong, after about six months. Operating around the clock, the 12 vehicles will move 3 million tons of products a year. The goal is to operate the unmanned trucks on public roads in Singapore by 2020, assuming government legislation for the driverless vehicles is passed by then.

The first truck, built by Dutch vehicle manufacturer VDL Groep, has a price tag of about 500,000 Singapore dollars ($367,000), according to Koen Cardon, CEO of Katoen Natie Singapore. The truck initially will drive on the transponders that communicate with sensors built on the road, but it will shift to a more sophisticated, global-positioning system-navigated technology next year.

Katoen Natie expects the driverless trucks to help reduce labor costs and improve its competitiveness. "Not only in Singapore, but in our global operations, we see a shortage of labor force, and this will be a key challenge moving forward," Cardon said on Tuesday. "To remain relevant ... you need to get smarter, and you need to get more productive."

The Singapore government is supporting the project by providing a financial grant of an undisclosed amount, as the labor-constrained nation moves aggressively on the automation path.

"Driverless transport and automation are key enablers to improve productivity and reduce reliance on lower-skilled workforce," according to Damian Chan, executive director in charge of energy and chemicals at the Singapore government's Economic Development Board.

The driverless truck trial joins many other autonomous-vehicle pilot programs in Singapore. PSA International, the government-owned port operator, already runs 30 automated guided vehicles -- electric-powered dollies -- to move containers in its terminals. PSA has another plan to bring driverless trucks for trial on the road outside the port.

Toyota of Japan and Sweden's Scania are separately developing autonomous trucks for PSA's "truck platooning" project, where a manned truck is to lead three driverless ones behind it, communicating wirelessly, to drive on a public road between two port terminals 10km apart. PSA is expected to decide next year which manufacturer to work with in its trial.

Autonomous public transportation is another area Singapore is exploring to achieve smooth traffic conditions. Singapore- and Boston-based tech startup nuTonomy successfully tested self-driving taxis with passengers on Singapore's public roads last year. ST Kinetics, a unit of government-linked Singapore Technologies Engineering, is working with the government to develop a driverless bus and aims to begin trials in 2020.

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