Driverless Future Standard on Track
The first and last miles are the longest of any journey — especially in Singapore’s sticky humidity slash relentless heavy rain.
In Singapore, these interminable miles could soon be shortened by fleets of self-driven vehicles (SDVs).
But when the first autonomous vehicle pulls up to you and opens its doors, will we have the trust to climb aboard?
Helping the public and transport regulators trust self-driven road vehicles — not just in Singapore but around the world — is the aim of the newly-launched Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of Automatic Vehicles (Cetran) Singapore.
Launched by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) of Singapore and JTC Corporation on 1 August 2016, Cetran plans to be at the global forefront of developing standards that SDVs should meet before their first foray onto public roads.
Cetran’s partner Nanyang Technological University (NTU) will lead research activities, operate the planned test circuit, and evaluate prototype vehicles undergoing testing there.
The Public Transport Challenge
In 2015, the daily average number of bus and rail rides in Singapore hit 6.9 million after rising every year for a decade, according to the LTA’s 2014/2015 Annual Report.
As the rail network expands and public transport becomes more attractive, SDVs could be an important piece in Singapore’s public transport puzzle, said Cetran’s programme director, Mr Niels de Boer.
“Finding people to drive buses and taxis is already an issue, and will become more difficult as the population ages. At the same time, train stations are moving closer to people’s homes, so self-driving vehicles could become a more efficient option.”
However, even short hops to the MRT station will present many challenges for SDVs.
Without a human in charge, SDVs will need to master traffic rules, traffic behaviour, road design, and on top of all this, Singapore’s tropical climate.
“Traditional testing cannot cover such a large number of conditions,” noted Mr de Boer, adding that NTU researchers will need to identify all of the possibilities and create ways to test whether SDVs are up to the challenge.
Research by the Cetran team is already well underway.
“We have started to analyse Singapore traffic so that we can model the safety critical situations an SDV will encounter,” he shared.
Real Life and Virtual Worlds
To achieve its first milestone, which is to develop a blueprint of how regulators should describe the functionalities an SDV needs before it can operate on a public road, the researchers will need to marry together two different regulatory worlds.
They have to contend with both the strict and objective engineering tests of vehicles, and the more subjective test of a virtual driver’s ability and judgement.
Cetran researchers aim to tackle this dual challenge by developing software which can test the vehicle under many conditions in the virtual world, which will be complemented with physical tests on the test track.
“The track testing will have the dual function of testing the most critical functionality in the real world, while at the same time validating that the simulation in the virtual world is correct,” explained Mr de Boer.
To this end, TA and JTC is jointly developing Cetran’s test circuit to simulate real roads and the environments they run through.
Encompassing an area of 1.8 hectares or two football fields, the test circuit is currently under construction at JTC’s CleanTech Park, a large-scale ‘living lab’ for technology and eco-businesses.
The circuit, expected to be operational in the second half of 2017, will also be open to industry players for the development and testing of their own vehicles as they work towards meeting Cetran’s standards.
Driver of SDV Innovation: Research
With its aim to be at the global forefront of SDV standard setting and testing, it is crucial that Cetran not only develop new technologies and standards, but a foundation of trust in its own work as well.
To ensure that it is independent in its evaluation, a ‘firewall’ will curtain the Centre off from other groups within NTU that are developing SDV technologies such as sensor systems, sensor fusion, deep learning for control systems, and navigation technologies, Mr de Boer said.
While Cetran will not directly develop new technologies for SDVs, it will generate fundamental research on how these systems should operate.
“Our research into the interface between the SDV and the real world should form the basis for the requirements of future SDVs. This knowledge should be available to anyone who wants to develop SDVs,” noted Mr de Boer.
Currently, Cetran is building partnerships with many leading international SDV players.
According to Mr de Boer, these players want to be involved in Cetran as they see that Singapore is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to the deployment of driverless vehicles.
Current partners include TUV-SUD, an independent assurance company with a strong track record in automotive safety; TUM-CREATE, the local arm of the Technical University of Munich, which is strong in automotive research; and BMW, whose Future Mobility Lab in NTU works on traffic safety analysis.
With all of these partnerships and research efforts in the works, Cetran could be sending the very first mass SDV fleet onto local roads sooner than later.
- Teaser image and main image (Top Photo) from Pixabay.
- Photos of Cetran launch courtesy of Nanyang Technological Univresity (NTU).