Friday, May 20, 2016

When private cars go the way of horse carriages

Adrian Lim

MAY 14, 2016

Commuters will summon driverless pods to go where they need but, first, cars that drive themselves must learn to see and think more like humans. Scientists in Singapore are working on both.
When driverless cars become the norm, they will cause a redrawing of the transport map so major it will make the changes due to Uber and GrabCar look like a few pencil marks.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study has predicted that combining self-driving cars with car-sharing means Singapore's mobility needs can be met with just 30 per cent of the current one million vehicles.

Imagine the scale of the disruption to the billion-dollar car industry, thousands of driving jobs and miles of space now reserved for roads and carparks.

The Transport Minister himself thinks this remapping of land transport is inevitable.

Last month, when Parliament debated his ministry's budget, Mr Khaw Boon Wan predicted that "private cars will likely start to go the way of horse carriages, if not in 15 years, definitely in 20 or 25 years' time".

Between now and then, experts predict a steady shift towards autonomous vehicles, starting in controlled environments such as container ports, airports and education campuses. That will happen within the next five years, they reckon, because existing driverless technology - which employs sensors, cameras, laser-light scanners and mapping systems - is ready for use in such spaces.

Professor Wang Danwei, director at the Nanyang Technological University's Centre for System Intelligence and Efficiency, says: "Drivers and other (human) users in these areas can be educated on how to behave towards these new systems."

In fact, from the middle of this year, self-driving vehicles will be plying Gardens by the Bay. In just over two years' time, on-demand driverless shuttles are expected to ferry visitors about on Sentosa.

Prof Wang believes that self-driving public buses can be deployed if the road infrastructure is equipped with transponders to guide the vehicles, and bus lanes are reserved primarily for their use.

For commuters, though, the big change will come when they can summon driverless pods via an app to help them travel the first and last miles to a transport node such as an MRT station, and when self-driving taxis take to the roads to ferry people from point to point.

But those disruptions could still be at least 10 to 15 years away, or even longer. That's because more research and development are needed to enable self-driving cars to safely go onto crowded public roads with other human drivers, experts say.


In February, a Google self-driving SUV (sport utility vehicle) collided with a bus in Mountain View, California, after the SUV's computer wrongly assumed that the bus driver in an adjacent lane would slow down.

To be fair to autonomous cars, it must be said that that was the first accident involving a Google self-driving car after the company's fleet had clocked more than 2.25 million km on the roads, a feat many experts consider impressive.

But for driverless cars to make the leap to being truly robust, safe, and reliable, the software algorithm used to drive them needs to shift from thinking "reactively" to thinking "proactively", says Dr Marcelo Ang, acting director at the National University of Singapore's Advanced Robotics Centre.

What's the difference?

At a road intersection without traffic lights, for example, a "reactive" self-driving car will use a set of parameters to "decide" when to go, Dr Ang says. These are based on how far away oncoming traffic is and whether such traffic is in the car's "safety zone" - a computer-defined radius around the car that tells it to stop.

"But a proactive algorithm will predict, (for example) whether the oncoming car has an aggressive driver, and will know in the next one to five seconds how the environment will change and plan the action accordingly."

More importantly, however, such an algorithm is constantly learning from experience - akin to humans.

"After the action is made, the algorithm rates itself - how well did it perform? If it crashed, it won't make the same prediction and action again," says Dr Ang, who is also a co-investigator at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology's (Smart) Future Urban Mobility unit.

If the process of "deep learning" - mimicking a human brain's ability to recognise patterns through huge data sets and make predictions - can be programmed in self-driving cars, it would propel them to the next level.

But that could take around a decade more, Dr Ang reckons.


Driverless cars also have to overcome some very real physical shortcomings that currently limit their usefulness.

This may come as a surprise but researchers have yet to work out how to get such cars to work reliably in bad weather. Heavy rain, for example, is not something such cars can deal with. That needs to be fixed if driverless cars are to become a true point-to-point, on-demand mobility solution which can be relied on at any time of the day, says Prof Wang.

Explaining why these smart cars struggle with a weather phenomenon that humans take in their stride, Prof Wang says: "When it rains, human (drivers) can (visually) 'lock in' the yellow road markings, and consider the rain drops as disturbances.

However, the laser scanners and cameras on the driverless cars are affected by the poor visibility."

To tackle this, Prof Wang together with researchers at the ST Engineering-NTU Corporate Laboratory are experimenting with signal-processing techniques so the car's computer can "remove" the rain, in the same way that a human does.

An alternative solution is to change the frequency at which the car's cameras capture the road images to account for the intervals between raindrops. "When the frequency is right, we can see through the rain," Prof Wang says.


While the road to a driverless future is still fraught with challenges, governments, carmakers and tech companies around the world are already paving the way for its eventual acceptance.

In anticipation of these vehicles hitting the streets, lawmakers in American states such as Nevada and California have enacted regulations to allow autonomous cars on the road.

In Singapore, the Government formed the Committee on Autonomous Road Transport in Singapore (Carts) two years ago.

Last October, Carts identified four main tracks along which the Government will encourage the use of self-driving vehicles: mass transport on fixed and scheduled services for travel within and between towns; shared services for point-to-point and first- and last-mile travel; freight; and utility operations, such as road sweepers.

Other countries are more ambitious: China has plans for a draft road map to put autonomous cars on streets and highways within three to five years.

The British government has said it will allow driverless car trials on highways by the end of next year, and has committed £150 million (S$296 million) to harness new technologies, including a "Wi-Fi road" that could see cars and infrastructure wirelessly connected.

The key to making driverless cars a reality in Singapore will be private sector-led trials.

Singapore has given the green light for three groups to carry out such trials along a 6km test route in research-cum-business park one-north - a real-world environment with heavy and light traffic situations, and motorists and pedestrians on the roads.

The three organisations with approval to test-bed their vehicles there are the Institute for Infocomm Research under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research; the Singapore-MIT Alliance's Smart; and start-up nuTonomy, an MIT spin-off.

Associate Professor Park Byung Joon of SIM University says that, given Singapore's dense road network and heavy vehicular traffic, care must be taken to mix self-driving cars with human-operated ones as the technology is, in his view, not mature yet in this respect.

"In the future, when every car is autonomous and driven by a computer, it's not a problem. But now, there will be some issues - how computers and human drivers mingle. Driverless cars drive by the book and law, but humans don't," he says.

[There is also cultural differences, and I don't mean driving on the left or right. Driving cultures may provide more or less space between cars, act and react differently. What this means is that an autonomous car programmed for Los Angeles's roads, may not work so well in SG. And a car programmed for SG roads, may not work so well in KL. Or Jakarta. Or Manila. Or Shanghai. 

Of course it would be interesting to see if a car programmed for Beijing would work well in Shanghai. Or Hong Kong. And it may not be symmetrical. Programme A could work in A and B, but Programme B may not work in A.

But this may only be an issue as long as there are human drivers to bring driving "culture" onto the roads. Once the dominance of human drivers is reduced or eliminated, it would be the human driver who would have to adapt. Or maybe not. 

If you are the only human driver on the road and all others are autonomous cars with proactive algorithms, then you can drive like a maniac, and the other cars will avoid you the best they can.]

But when the technology matures, Prof Park says, Singapore can be an ideal test-bed for research firms precisely because of its traffic density, and the Government should open more road spaces to attract such companies here.

"Even the quietest heartland area in Singapore is going to be a far more complex environment than what Google is testing in, in the US," Prof Park says.


Singapore's constraints, including its land and manpower shortage, may well fuel its drive to automate driving sooner rather than later.

The city state has close to a million motor vehicles on the roads, and the 12 per cent of land space set aside for roads is close to being fully utilised.

"Building more train lines," says Dr James Fu, nuTonomy's director of Singapore operations, "will eventually lead to a marginal increase in transport efficiency."

That's because "people will say they don't live near a station, and they want more stations. But more stops will just lead to longer end-to-end travelling time for everyone," he adds.

Dr Fu is hopeful that as the authorities open up more road estate - such as that in one-north - the technology powering today's driverless cars will evolve in sophistication.

"Driving in an urban environment with other human drivers - that's the biggest challenge. But people are confident of solving this," he says.

"People's driving behaviours are different in Orchard Road, the CBD and Jurong East, for example. So the more access you have to different kinds of public roads, you can see the limitations of the current algorithms, what situations they can and can't handle. Right now, we don't know what we don't know, " he adds.

Besides roads, driverless cars have the potential to alter city infrastructure by reducing the need for carparks. In a sharing economy, autonomous vehicles will not need to be parked as they can drop off their passengers and proceed to the next destination.

Road space can also be yielded to pedestrians and cyclists as autonomous cars will have the ability to travel closer to one another, and at road speeds which are constant, and less erratic than their human counterparts.

Perhaps the greatest gain and the one most espoused by its proponents is safety. Studies have shown that around 90 per cent of road accidents are due to human error, and driverless cars - whose computers are never tired or distracted - are touted to be safer.

[Unfortunately, autonomous cars can NEVER be safe enough. If a human driver were to cause an accident, the worst that would happen is that the driver would be held fully accountable for the accident. If an autonomous vehicle were to be involved in an accident, then it is not just that vehicle, but all the other vehicles that were programmed in the same way - are they also going to cause an accident? If your loved one were killed in an accident with a human driver, you may never forgive that driver. If it were an autonomous vehicle? There would be unending questions with unsatisfactory answers. As long as one accident happens with a autonomous car, there will be paranoids (and exploiters) who will scream bloody murder. Fortunately, convenience makes hypocrites of us all. So if the autonomous cars are exceedingly convenient, people will excuse the occasional accident. Or even death.]

"The driverless car," says Dr Ang, "is not affected by emotions. When you overtake it, it doesn't get angry. It's not affected by tiredness, is more objective and has the potential of exceeding a (human) driver's capabilities."

[Related news:]

Job loss looms but this bus driver has changed gear

MAY 14, 2016,

A bus driver for 20 years, Dutchman Bram Moelker, 51, now operates six self-driving buses from behind a set of computer monitors.

From a control room in the Rivium Business Park in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, his job is to ensure the smooth running of the electric buses which carry 20 passengers each and ply a 1.8km network within the park.

The buses operate autonomously on a tracked road that is part of a road network used by motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. If he is on the early shift, he starts work at 5.30am, checks the tracks and buses, then dispatches the first three vehicles at 6am, and another three more during the morning peak hours. Mr Moelker says he "takes care of everything", and that includes handling inquiries from passengers who contact him via intercom, plus cleaning and simple maintenance of the vehicles. Every few months, a careless motorist or cyclist might knock into and damage boom barriers - located at the intersection between the driverless buses and regular vehicular traffic - so Mr Moelker will have to fix them or get a contractor to do so. These barriers prevent vehicles driven by humans from getting into the path of the self-driving buses. When the barriers are out of order, the buses will stop operating.

On the very rare occasion that the system cannot recover within 30 minutes, Mr Moelker or his colleagues drive a minibus to ferry passengers.

The driverless buses in Rotterdam were introduced in 2004 to extend the transport network to the Rivium Business Park from a nearby metro system, and cut down walking time for people working there. Mr Moelker chose to leave his job as bus driver to take on the role of operator, saying he jumped at the chance to try something new.

When autonomous buses and taxis eventually take over the roads, say, in 20 to 30 years' time, those who drive for a living will be displaced. US-based consultant Chunka Mui warned on the Forbes blog that the list of jobs affected will not stop at taxi, Uber, bus and lorry drivers but run to "new car dealers, collision and repair shops, tow truck operators, insurance agents, adjustors, call-centre operators, ambulance drivers".

Experts in Singapore agree that driving jobs will inevitably have to go if autonomous vehicles prove to be safer, more reliable and resource efficient. But new jobs will be created assomeone has to monitor these vehicles, says Dr Marcelo Ang, acting director of the National University of Singapore's Advanced Robotics Centre.

"They can be fleet managers but fewer numbers (of workers) may be required. They will do decision- making for extraordinary situations, such as accidents and unexpected scenarios. They could be like the air traffic controllers at airports," he adds.

Mr Robbert Lohmann, vice-president of marketing at 2getthere, the Dutch company behind Rivium's driverless buses, says: "We believe it shifts employment, creating more desk jobs and replacing manual labour...

"It adds to the knowledge economy or, in this case, economic growth. The reliance of Singapore on foreign labour will also become less."

Few locals want to be bus drivers. So operators like SMRT now hire 50 per cent of its bus drivers from countries such as China and Malaysia.

Last month, 2getthere announced a joint venture with SMRT to form 2getthere Asia, with plans to bring its driverless pods to Singapore and the region.

But does technology take away more jobs than it creates? How severe will the labour pains be for transport workers? Associate Professor Randolph Tan, director of the Centre for Applied Research at SIM University, says technological change creates as many, or even more, jobs than it renders obsolete, as happened when economies shifted from agriculture to industry.

"When it occurs too rapidly, the changes have been extremely disruptive for society. But if you look at the net gains over a period of decades after society has had time to adjust, you would find few people arguing for a return to pre-industrialisation standards in jobs and living," says Prof Tan.

Still, driverless technologies can lead to a rise in structural unemployment, when jobless individuals cannot find work due to a mismatch between their skills and those demanded by employers. "Government policy must prepare workers of the future to acquire the skills to perform complementary tasks," says Singapore Management University Economics Professor Hoon Hian Teck, and that is how SkillsFuture can be "a national effort to build a society more resilient towards disruptive technologies".

Experts also say that the negative impact of driverless cars on jobs has to be weighed against the gains to commuters, including groups who now struggle to access public transport. Mr Mui predicts that driverless taxis - which are set to cost less - will spell "freedom, independence and self-reliance for many seniors and people with disabilities". Driverless cars will also reduce the waste in resources spent hunting for carparking space. "Many of the issues that I raised apply to Singapore, and some perhaps more so because of the ageing population and the urban density," he says in a reply to The Straits Times.

Mr Moelker, the bus driver turned operator, says: "The system is easy to learn. (But) some people may find being a controller stressful. You have to make a lot of decisions at the same time. " Observing that there are few driverless systems in the world, he says "being a controller now is something special".

Adrian Lim

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