This tiny country knows the future of driverless tech: Alex Webb

This tiny country knows the future of driverless tech: Alex Webb

01/06/18, 04:06 pm

(June 1): Pilot plans to test driverless cars on city streets have so far been little more than vanity research projects. But one tiny country has put the whole autonomous vehicle industry on a track to make money in real life.

Automakers, tech firms and new entrants the world over have spent the past few weeks racing to meet Thursday’s deadline for a so-called Request for Information that Singapore announced back in November. The city state plans to operate fleets of autonomous vehicles in three districts starting in 2022. The responses will inform a formal Request for Proposals to win the contracts to offer scheduled services, such as autonomous buses, and on-demand ride-hailing cars to the general public. The timing for the decisions hasn’t been revealed.

This is the first time that companies have a path to pitching for a commercial venture in a major global city. To actually win a contract, they're going to have to do more than show they have the latest safety features. They're going to have to present an entire business plan.

Though companies with no operations in the region, such as Uber Technologies Inc. or Lyft Inc., probably stayed away from the process, it’s likely that many of the other major players submitted responses – Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and Aptiv Plc are among those who already have early research projects in the city.

Singapore has asked for an incredible amount of detail. Its scope is unusual, covering topics from vehicle specifications, to the business model, to data and intellectual property ownership. It has 10 annexes, including 34 pages on 5G networks alone. It’s 122 pages long. The RFI for companies to test driverless cars in Washington is just four pages long.

And the questions Singapore asked about the business of putting driverless vehicles into cities are profound. For example, how will the cost of rides be integrated into the city's existing public transport fare structure? What sensors will be built into bus stops to detect how many passengers are waiting? What is the response plan and timeline to fix defective vehicles? How big will the requisite maintenance facilities be? It suggests that respondents should team up with insurers to help price insurance premiums.

Singapore’s current autonomous driving trials require vehicles to be fitted with a black box that continuously collects 17 data sets (steering angle, speed, camera footage etc.) and sends much of it to the Land Transportation Authority in real time. Whoever participates in the proposed commercial venture would also have to put black boxes in its vehicles. That is anathema to Silicon Valley companies that are famously averse to oversight.

They’ll probably get over it because the reward is too great to pass up. And though they don't have to answer all the questions on the RFI, a fuller response puts them in a better position to win a contract -- even though that might mean divulging some of their secret tech sauce.

With all the data it's received from the RFIs, Singapore will be able to assess better than anyone both who has the most advanced projects, and the most realistic commercialisation plans. Winning the contract would serve as a massive endorsement of market leadership.

And the process also puts Singapore in a unique position. Most of the world's developed economies now have regulations in place to support the testing of fleets of autonomous vehicles, as my colleagues at Bloomberg New Energy Finance wrote earlier this month. But Singapore may be the first to set comprehensive rules for self-driving vehicle businesses. It will do so based on an unparalleled wealth of information. It’s a natural template for cities around the world to emulate.

Singapore now has more information on self-driving cars than any other entity in the world. The entire industry, and cities everywhere, should watch very carefully to see what it does next.

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