SINGAPORE (Dec 31): Early this year, the future of driverless cars appeared bright. There were several trials being carried out, in various countries, on both closed circuits and open roads. But progress may have taken a step back after a fatal accident involving autonomous vehicles (AVs) that were being trialled. In March, an Uber self-driving test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

In Singapore, on Oct 18, 2016, AV technology start-up Nutonomy’s vehicle collided with a lorry at low speed during a test drive. Nutonomy halted its trials following the accident, but resumed them after a month.

Indeed, despite the hiccups, Singapore has continued to be supportive of AV technology, with roads in one-north, for example, designated as AV test sites. In August 2016, Nanyang Technological University launched a Centre of Excellence for Testing and Research of AVs that features a 1.8ha simulated open road environment. NTU has seen a host of companies trialling their AV buses on campus, even ferrying students along a set route.

The city state is seen as an ideal test bed for AV technology, and has attracted companies such as Nutonomy, as well as Volvo, whose bus unit has signed an agreement with NTU to cooperate on R&D of autonomous buses.

Meanwhile, Singapore Technologies Engineering has been testing its autonomous buses on Sentosa since June this year. People will soon be able to hail the buses on demand via their smartphones or kiosks, in a three-month trial that is expected to commence in 2019.

ST Engineering also has deployed an AV at Gardens By The Bay, to provide on-demand shuttle services for visitors, except when it rains heavily. The Auto Rider was Asia’s first operational AV when it was deployed in 2016.

In a further development, the Infocomm and Media Development Authority of Singapore recently issued a call to develop so-called Smart Estates. There will be test beds for AVs at Jurong Town Corp estates in one-north and Launchpad @ Jurong Innovation District. IMDA has set aside $14 million to help fund trials for innovative urban solutions at JTC estates, as well as at Ascendas Singbridge’s Science Parks 1 and 2.

How far can we go with AVs? What effect would any further major accident have? At the very least, Singapore will continue to attract some of the world’s AV trials, says Walter Theseira, associate professor of economics, Singapore University of Social Sciences.

“The policy framework here continues to be permissive towards AV testing, so I expect Singapore will continue to be of interest to AV firms. We also have good access to software development talent, and road conditions here are reasonably representative of what you would encounter in other developed cities,” he says.

Theseira believes AV testing will continue worldwide, despite the high-profile accidents. The potential of AV technology outweighs current risks, he says. “The stakes are simply too high — even a limited deployment would completely change the land transport industry. The only change that might occur as a result of high-profile fatalities is to scale back some of the claims being made about the timeline of adoption and the initial usage cases.”

Interestingly, with the advancement in AV technology, car manufacturers have been increasingly incorporating driver assistance technology into their existing models. Some of these, such as high-automation cruise control with lane-keeping, distance-keeping and automatic overtaking, even come as standard features rather than optional add-ons. Toyota Motor Corp, for instance, now includes automatic emergency braking in all its US models.

“The AV revolution might not happen with fully automated vehicles so soon, but it has already changed how people drive through the introduction of these advanced driver aids,” Theseira says.

One significant benefit of such automated driver assistance would be in the prevention of accidents due to driver error, such as slow reaction time or fatigue.

In any case, this could very well help prepare the general public for full autonomous driving in the future. “For example, there isn’t that much difference in principle between a fully automated highway cruise control solution and a full AV, for highway driving today,” Theseira notes. “I think the goal has shifted in the near term, away from immediate full AV deployment to AVtech assisted driving, and limited AV deployment in specific cases.”

As the public’s idea of mobility shifts, the convergence between AVs and ride-hailing will grow even closer as companies seek better margins per ride and customers demand a safer riding experience. In the meantime, driving will get more augmented rather than autonomous.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 863, week of Dec 31) which is on sale now. Subscribe here