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Singapore tourist hotspot tries out Uber-style driverless shuttles

'On-demand' autonomous vehicles get go ahead for public tests in Sentosa

Autonomous vehicle self-driving
Self-driving shuttle buses are being trialed over the coming months in Singapore tourist attraction Sentosa island. (Photo by Dylan Loh)

SINGAPORE -- British doctor Vickie Smith enjoys taking leisurely strolls to explore her surroundings when traveling, but has found this difficult in Singapore's tropical conditions. Every year, the mother of three and her family visit her in-laws in the city-state and, while there, like to visit the white powdery beaches of Sentosa island just south of Singapore's mainland.

When Smith heard about a trial of driverless shuttle buses for visitors to Sentosa, she was eager to get on board. "I usually like walking but it's so hot here that I prefer to get transport instead."

Sentosa's autonomous vehicle trial will be running from Aug. 26 to Nov. 15 this year, following more than a year of tests without public participation. Visitors will be able to call for a free ride using an Uber-style mobile application, or use computer terminals stationed along the 5.7km coastal route of the shuttle service, which links the island's beaches and attractions.

The driverless system has been developed by ST Engineering, a Singapore company which makes technology platforms for commercial and military use. The company says this project of 'on-demand' self-driving shuttles for public use is the first of its kind in Asia. If successful, it hopes the technology will be rolled out on a wider scale locally and overseas.

With foreign partners, the company is exploring the deployment of autonomous vehicles in Israel and Japan. Japanese transport operator Willer is already in talks with ST Engineering for potential use of the shuttles to service the Aqua Ignis resort in Japan's Mie prefecture.

Boasting a bank of radar and camera sensors, the vehicles are designed to function under dry to light rain conditions and are equipped to navigate around obstacles in a range of complex environments. ST Engineering said the wellbeing of the public was its top priority, and while the shuttles can function independently, safety drivers will still be stationed on board to take control if needed. On Sentosa, four autonomous vehicles will serve visitors, each with either a 15 or 23-person seating capacity.

The trial is seen by officials as another step forward in Singapore's ambitions for larger-scale use of driverless vehicles. "Autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to transform our public transport system and the way we move around in the future," said the city-state's Permanent Secretary for Transport Loh Ngai Seng. "This trial will provide important insights into the commuter experience and the interaction of autonomous vehicles with other road users."

The driverless shuttles promise to be a novel means for tourists to travel to and around Sentosa, one of Singapore’s most popular attractions with some 19 million visitors annually.   © Reuters

But not everyone is enamored with the technology's gradual roll-out. Associate Professor Park Byung Joon of the Singapore University of Social Sciences believes optimism around the development of self-driving vehicles in Singapore may be baseless. "Full deployment of autonomous vehicles is not going to happen anytime soon. We are at least a decade, more likely two or more decades, from seeing autonomous buses and taxis serving people's daily transport needs," he said.

At present, the driverless shuttles promise to be a novel means for tourists to travel around Sentosa, one of Singapore's more popular attractions with some 19 million visitors annually. Chief Executive of Sentosa Development Corporation Quek Swee Kuan said the self-driving shuttles were part of efforts to improve access to the island's offerings: "As we embark on Sentosa's next phase of development, we will continue to collaborate with various partners to test-bed new and innovative ideas, so as to strengthen our appeal as a world-class holiday destination for both locals and tourists."

Singapore tourism officials are counting on the rejuvenation of existing attractions as a key way to draw in a steady stream of foreign visitors. Sentosa, for one, sits within the Greater Southern Waterfront vicinity in the city-state.

The country's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently spoke about long-term plans to further develop the location to live, work and play. The plans will include revitalizing Sentosa's beaches and linking up parks in the surrounding area.

Senior lecturer in tourism at Ngee Ann Polytechnic Michael Chiam sees the developments as positive. "Sentosa is one of the major destinations in Singapore as it has many attractions that continuously draw tourists there; for example, Resorts World Sentosa, Fort Siloso and the Sentosa Merlion. It is a 'must visit' among many Chinese tourists."

Following the trials of autonomous shuttles on Sentosa, ST Engineering says it will explore with urban planners the potential for wider deployment of self-driving technology within the Greater Southern Waterfront as it is redeveloped. "That actually presents us with an exciting opportunity because we can work with government agencies to design the town [to include] autonomous buses," said Dr Lee Shiang Long, president of the company's land systems arm.

But until that vision is realized, visitors like Smith will have to cope with walking through the sweltering Singapore heat to reach tourist spots not served by shuttles.

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