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Singapore paving the way for cheaper driverless cars

SINGAPORE -- Self-driving cars are much in the news lately, with companies such as U.S. tech titan Google putting autonomous vehicles through their paces.

     Another center of the nascent self-driving car industry is Singapore, where the focus is on lowering the cost of the technology. The National University of Singapore has teamed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a project that recently held a test-drive event where more than 500 people had an opportunity to ride in two prototype vehicles inside a park.  

     The entire city-state of Singapore is no larger geographically than Tokyo, and its population is both growing and aging. Add to the mix the prospect of worsening congestion, and it is clear why the government is keen on promoting self-driving cars that can move people around more efficiently.

Driving with your eyes closed

Last October, a pair of modified golf carts made their debut in Chinese and Japanese Gardens in western Singapore. Instead of a steering wheel, the carts sported a touch panel. Riders simply touched the panel to start the journey and the cart did the rest, steering around pedestrians and obstacles en route to designated stops inside the park.

     The event was part of a test drive conducted by SMART, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. The SMART team developing the autonomous vehicle is composed of NUS doctoral students and professors from the university and from MIT.

The SMART team is developing autonomous vehicles made by outfitting golf carts and cars with a bevy of sensors. (Courtesy of SMART)

     People wanting to give the carts a spin registered on a website, choosing their pickup point and destination along a course in the park that included 10 stops. When the cart arrived at their stop, they simply climbed in, touched the panel and away they went. A survey after the event found that 98% of passengers wanted to use the vehicles again.

     "Elderly people and families with kids found the autonomous vehicles convenient for moving around in the park," said Scott Pendleton, a member of SMART and a Ph.D. candidate at NUS.

Doing it cheaper

The golf carts used in the test drive are equipped with sensors mounted on the front, back and sides. The sensors detect pedestrians and obstacles, warning the cart to slow down or stop to avoid collisions. Sensors also determine the carts' location.

     Before the test drive, the carts were driven around the course to record the position of obstacles such as buildings and walls, and to generate a map of the area. During the event itself, the sensors continually checked this map and the surrounding obstacles to track the carts' location. The 10 stops were included on the map, enabling the carts to drive between them.

     Unlike other types of driverless cars that use expensive 3-D laser sensors, SMART's autonomous cars employ low-cost, off-the-shelf lidar sensors that allow them to drive autonomously without GPS. This allows the carts to navigate through tunnels, between skyscrapers, and indoors, where GPS signals may not reach. Using cheaper sensors lowers the cost of production: system fitted on SMART's vehicles costs no more than 30,000 Singapore dollars ($21,400), significantly cheaper than those developed by Google and others.

     To make an autonomous vehicle that feels more like a car, the SMART team is now developing a new version built on the chassis of a Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car.

     Moving people more efficiently is important in Singapore. As the population grows, congestion will become more of a problem as cars hit the road in increasing numbers. At the same time, Singapore is graying. Restrictions on the entry of foreign workers mean it could become harder to find drivers to ferry people around in the future.

     Last year, Singapore's Land Transport Authority set up a committee to promote research and development of autonomous vehicles, and to discuss necessary changes to the law.

     "Singapore has the potential to be the first city to not only employ autonomous vehicles on a massive scale, but also to use technology to improve people's lives in an urban environment where there is limited land and resources," said NUS associate professor Marcelo Ang, who is collaborating on the SMART project.

     The next step will be for SMART to conduct tests on public roadways. Some graduates and former members of START have joined a startup that aims to commercialize autonomous vehicles developed by the team, helping pave the way for driverless cars to start zipping around the city-state.

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