TL;DR – Transform, and roll out!
By 2020, we can expect to see driverless buses plying the roads in Singapore. Granted, they will only be in areas like NUS and Jurong Island. This development came the signing of a partnership agreement between the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and ST Kinetics to develop and trial these buses.
The initial trial will involve two 40-seater electric buses designed and developed by ST Kinetics. These buses will utilise a whole range of technologies: satellite-based GPS to determine their location, sensors to scan their immediate location, radars and sonar to detect pedestrians and other vehicles as far as 200m away. The buses aren’t perfect. Progress still has to be made to improve the buses’s ability to navigate during heavy rain.
How are Singaporeans responding to this news?
Concerned for jobs
One main reaction of Singaporeans is whether these driverless buses will result in bus captains losing their jobs. Some comments include:
“Already so many ppl lost their job n cant find one. They still roll out at this period. Is it a good timing? Putting salt in wound”
Then there’s this:
“Then what is the point of caring for Singaporeans who are looking for job? First, drivers were from China then robots? If government is not sensitive to the needs of Singaporeans, then don’t tell us that they care for us. It is more about profit as first priority. Sad……”
What these people don’t understand is that it is difficult to find young Singaporeans who want to be bus captains. It’s not as if there is a long line of applicants queueing up from Jurong to Tampines fighting to be bus captains. The reality is the opposite.
The median age of bus drivers who are Singaporeans or permanent residents is 58. That’s right. Half of the bus drivers who are Singaporeans or permanent residents are above the age of 58. That’s why we have to hire foreigners in order for us to have enough bus drivers.
The situation is likely to get worse. In the future, there’ll probably be even fewer Singaporeans or permanent residents who would want to be bus captains. What then? Hire more foreigners as bus drivers? No. That’s not the smart thing to do. The smarter thing to do is to find a way where we won’t need bus drivers. In other words, driverless buses.
But that can’t happen overnight. We need to test these buses. And that’s exactly what we are doing now.
The other set of responses revolves around safety concerns, and understandably so. Here are some samples:
“With driver already many accidents. Without driver Everyday sure to have a fatal issue. Technology is appreciated but it shouldn’t overule human skills and talent causing disasters. To all Drivers and pedestrians out there pls be careful when such buses are in operation. If technical error, are we gonna put innocent victims life at stake??pls reconsider for goodness sake.”
And there’s this rather interesting comment:
“the problem on road is reckless drivers, no robot operating on logic can handle it, even if sensors have a range of 200m, a vehicle swing into the lane a few meters ahead can cause driveless bus to brake abruptly, very likely render injury to passengers. Get rid of drivers before bring up driverless vehicles.”
Hmm… how can we get rid of drivers if we don’t have thoroughly-tested, road-proven driverless vehicles? As the technology matures, autonomous vehicles are likely to be a lot safer than human drivers. But it’s true. We aren’t there yet. That’s why the buses are currently tested in NUS and Jurong Island, areas where traffic conditions are a lot simpler.
In order for us to be sure that these buses can be deployed in island-wide, we definitely need to test the driverless buses in the toughest of conditions. Like what this person said in his comment:
“Before implement driverless bus, pls do a trial run at geylang n serangoon for one month’s esp on friday night, sat , sun n public holiday to see whether got zero accident case.”
Long way more to go
It will take a long time more before driverless buses are ready to ply the roads of Geylang and Little India on weekend nights. There should be sufficient time for our bus captains to prepare for the eventual possibility that their jobs are made obsolete. Bus captains who would still need to be working when driverless buses replace buses should really start thinking about what skills they can pick up now so that they can transition smoothly into different careers when the time comes.
But other than bus captains, who may lose their jobs, driverless buses will bring significant benefits to society. Benefits that would vastly outweigh potential costs. And even for those drivers, if they plan well, or if the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) plans well, then they won’t be that badly affected either. Remember, new and better jobs are being created as old jobs are being destroyed. If we can see it coming, then we should prepare ourselves to be future-ready.
That’s why we are think that we should celebrate when driverless buses are eventually rolled out.