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Singapore: On the road to a self-driving future

Concept of self-driving vehicles deployed in a town center in Singapore. (Photo: Ministry of Transport, Singapore)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Space is in short supply in Singapore, and the labor market is tight. Hence the buzzing global hub is constantly looking for innovative ways to use its limited land and manpower resources efficiently. A challenge that led to a stunning vision for the deployment of self-driving vehicles. We talked to one of the minds behind that vision.

Mr Pang Kin Keong is a man with a mission. Not only is he Singapore’s Permanent Secretary for Transport, he is also the Chairman of the Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore (CARTS). Formed in August last year, CARTS is responsible for developing a long-term vision for the deployment of self-driving vehicles.

And what the island nation is planning is visionary indeed! Its concept for driverless public transport might just make Singapore a trailblazer for megacities in Asia and around the world, as our interview reveals.

2025AD: Mr Pang, what is your personal impression of self-driving technology? Have you been chauffeured by a self-driving vehicle before? 

Pang Kin Keong: Yes, I’ve sat in a few, both here in Singapore and in the US. They’re the future. The case for applying the technology to various forms of mobility and transportation is overwhelming and compelling. And while it may not be mature enough yet for day-to-day deployment, it’s clearly no longer just a fledgling technology or a fancy idea.

2025AD: Why has Singapore made developing a long-term vision for the deployment of self-driving vehicles a top priority? 

Mr Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary for Transport of Singapore

Pang Kin Keong: We’re driven primarily by two factors: limited land and limited manpower for our transportation needs. We’re not finding it easy to recruit bus drivers or truck drivers. And due to the limited land in Singapore, a car-dominant transportation system is not viable for us in the longer term. Roads currently take up 12% of Singapore’s land area, a number that is increasing. Our vehicle population has also now crossed the one million mark, but we don’t have the luxury of expanding our road network indefinitely to accommodate more and more private cars. We need to encourage the uptake of public transport.

2025AD: Is it Singapore’s ultimate goal to make individual, private cars obsolete? 

Pang Kin Keong: That would be ideal! But more realistically, we simply hope to significantly transform and improve public transport with the help of self-driving technology, so that more Singaporeans will find it unnecessary to own a private car. 

2025AD: How would the people of Singapore benefit from this?

Pang Kin Keong: We feel that by radically transforming our transportation system, we have a great opportunity to transform our living environment. We dream of a landscape which is not blighted by roads, car parks and cars, but where valuable surface area is reserved for pedestrians, cyclists, people getting around on kick scooters and other personal mobility devices, for greenery, homes and community spaces. 

2025AD: What does the long-term vision look like?

Pang Kin Keong: We envisage a fleet of on-demand, point-to-point self-driving pods that can be summoned through an app, bringing us from our doorstep to the train station in air-conditioned comfort. This will resolve today’s inadequacies in first-and-last mile connectivity which turn some people off public transport.   

We’re also planning to trial self-driving buses and truck platooning to deal with the shortage of drivers for bus transportation and the logistics industry. With self-driving technology, we can deploy trucks for the delivery of goods, as well as public utility vehicles for rubbish collection and road sweeping, during the dead of night. This means they would no longer have to compete with other traffic during the daylight hours.   

Only at basement level, will we find roads for freight, mass public transport, such as trains, and cars for those who still want to own them. I think that would be an ideal living environment.  

2025AD:  Singapore is home to one of the world’s busiest ports and a major air hub. What role will autonomous mobility play in Singapore’s freight business? 

Pang Kin Keong: As one of the world’s busiest container transshipment hubs, there is a high need round-the-clock to transport containers between the various terminals. We are working with port operator PSA Corporation to seek proposals to design, develop and test a truck platooning system for intra- and inter-terminal container haulage. This would help the trucking industry raise its productivity and address its manpower constraints.  

Similarly, there are several areas where our airport can leverage self-driving technology for various mobility and transportation needs, for example, for transportation of passengers between the different terminals or from remote aircraft stands to the gate-hold rooms.

2025AD: CARTS has already allowed several private sector-led trials of self-driving vehicles in one-north and Gardens by the Bay. What conclusions have you been able to draw from those trials so far? 

Pang Kin Keong: There are indeed trials on-going, not just at one-north and Gardens by the Bay, but also at our container port and the campuses of our universities. In due course, there will also be trials at Sentosa, some industrial parks and the airport too. 

At this stage, it’s important for us to gain a deeper understanding of the technology and its application in the context of Singapore’s roads, local road-user behavior and the weather. The trials also offer us a valuable opportunity to introduce the public to self-driving technology. 

Singapore rethinks public transport to make better use of its space. (Photo: Fotolia)

2025AD: What do you see as the biggest challenges on the way to an autonomous transport system?

Pang Kin Keong: There are probably two where Singapore is concerned. 

The first is technology. Self-driving technology is not yet fully ready for real-world deployment. This is particularly true in a mixed-use, heavy-traffic environment where automated vehicles need to interact with a high volume of human-driven vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. Further research and development are also required to develop vehicles that are able to function effectively in poor weather conditions with low visibility. Heavy rains are common in Singapore, and some years we experience very hazy conditions.

The second challenge is regulation. Although many countries and cities are testing self-driving vehicles, we have not yet seen a set of well-established international standards and regulations for the development and deployment of self-driving vehicles on a large scale.   

2025AD: How does Singapore intend to secure public acceptance for self-driving technology?

Pang Kin Keong: Some would say that public acceptance is a challenge, but I’m inclined to think this won’t be much of an issue for Singapore. Self-driving technology is not something new in our land transport system. With the exception of our two very first MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) lines, all the others are driverless. During previous trials, the self-driving vehicles were very well received by the public, who were excited to try them out. Singaporeans take to new technology readily, and I believe this will also be the case for self-driving technology. 

2025AD: In what way do you consider Singapore to be a trailblazer for autonomous driving, serving as a role model for other Asian megacities that face similar challenges?  

Pang Kin Keong: Smart mobility forms an important pillar in Singapore’s journey towards becoming a Smart Nation, where info-communication technologies, networks and data are harnessed to enable a better quality of life.   

Operating self-driving vehicles as a transport solution goes beyond the vehicles per se. There is a need for roadside and central infrastructure to monitor and control the fleet of vehicles. Such infrastructure includes surveillance cameras, vehicle-to-roadside telecommunication equipment, 3D maps and more. All this will form the ecosystem which Singapore is already developing. 

But perhaps the most critical ingredient to being successful in this journey towards a self-driving future is for a city to have a clear vision of exactly how it wants to deploy the technology. This way, it can be much more focused on what to test and trial, and how to prepare its infrastructure and city design.

2025AD: And finally, when do you think Singapore’s vision of a self-driving transport system will become a reality? 

Pang Kin Keong: My bet is that self-driving technology will be mature enough for widespread, day-to-day, public deployment in the next 10 to 15 years.

What do you think about the plans for Singapore? Let us and other readers know in your comments!

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Angelo Rychel
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