Imagine that instead of a long, bumper-to-bumper commute to work, you only had to take out your phone and within moments, you could board an autonomous bus and arrive at your workplace in less than 20 minutes.
Convenient and comfortable commutes, with on-demand functions that do not require any human interaction—this vision of easily accessible mobility is within grasp, thanks to the developing capabilities of autonomous vehicles, or AVs, that are currently being tested and refined for smoother travels.
City-ready shared autonomous transport
While driverless cars are often in the limelight, shared autonomous shuttles and buses are gaining traction, with increasingly frequent trials to ensure they are city-ready and effective in overcoming transportation challenges. The higher passenger capacity of shared autonomous transport is key to enabling a more efficient and sustainable transportation model that addresses mobility pain points in cities.
In Singapore, shared and autonomous mobility is a key part of the city-state’s master plan for land transport to solve current and future urban mobility challenges. Today, mid- and full-sized autonomous bus services have already started providing revenue service—the operation of transit shuttles to carry passengers, with fare collection via a mobile app—for the public at the Singapore Science Park 2 and Jurong Island, adding to its portfolio of smaller-sized autonomous shuttles around the country. This paves the way for more potential value propositions of AV deployments in Singapore, with supporting regulations accompanied by large swathes of testbed areas set aside for testing AVs under a wide range of real-world traffic scenarios.
Similarly, countries like China, South Korea, and Japan have also begun testing autonomous shuttles. China has passed new laws to ensure safety on its highways; South Korea has planned to test autonomous buses in the administrative hub of Sejong to increase ridership and assist those who are physically handicapped; and Japan is testing autonomous buses to help the elderly get around rural areas.
Benefits of autonomous public transport
Autonomous vehicles revolutionize urban mobility by making it more accessible, affordable, and, more importantly, environmentally friendly. If they are seamlessly integrated into a country’s public transport system, AVs will transform the mobility landscape and encourage more people to make the shift from private vehicles to public transport.
Here are three key benefits of autonomous buses:
#1: Enhanced connectivity
One of the key goals of a public transportation system is to increase connectivity, including intra-city as well as first- and last-mile commutes. It is especially important in large and dense cities, where most residents depend on public transport to get around.
This is where the role of autonomous shuttles will be most beneficial. They help to increase the frequency of public buses travelling on fixed routes. Besides plying fixed routes, autonomous shuttles also have the potential for dynamic routing by offering various transport services and applications through the autonomous-shuttles-as-a-service model.
On-demand services can be an optimal mode of transportation in areas that are not traditionally served by public buses to extend the reach of public transportation. AVs are also able to function round-the-clock, as they have little to no downtime. This helps improve accessibility by complementing the current public transport network and enhancing the transport infrastructure connectivity of cities worldwide.
#2: Improved safety
Safety is perhaps the most pressing concern in transportation. As AVs go through rigorous rounds of testing and global safety standards are being set to ensure safer navigation, studies have shown that AVs are more likely to improve rather than worsen safety on the road. The simple reason is that AVs can greatly reduce the risk of human error, which is one of the key causes of road accidents. According to a comprehensive study on road safety, human error was the sole cause in 57% of all accidents and contributed to over 90% of these accidents.
With artificial intelligence, analytics, advanced algorithms, sensors, and various AV technologies deployed to ensure stringent safety adherence during operation, AVs are more likely to reduce the number of vehicle-related injuries and accidents. Improved road safety could also lead to a more efficient and optimized land transport ecosystem with fewer congestions and disruptions caused by road accidents.
#3: Sustainable driving
Autonomous buses are likely to pave the way for more sustainable urban transportation. On-demand autonomous shuttles can be booked in advance or when needed. This reduces unnecessary trips carried out by fixed-route buses or buses that serve low-demand areas. The demand and supply of public transport services are better matched to optimize limited transport resources.
With connected vehicle technology that enables more informed driving, autonomous shuttles could communicate with the surrounding environment through infrastructures and other vehicles for smoother driving, without frequently braking and accelerating. This can reduce carbon emissions due to unnecessary idling on the road and delays caused by traffic accidents.
These are just some scenarios of how autonomous buses can reduce wasted bus trips and the number of private vehicles on the road, making these buses a more environmentally friendly transport option for cities. In the long run, this will also help cities achieve economies of scale from the shared use of infrastructure and services.
Although shared AVs do not put an end to a city’s congestion and pollution woes, they promise a more efficient transportation solution with better accessibility and greater convenience for commuters. They potentially hold the key to safer roads and eventually pave the way for a car-lite community, transforming the way we live and travel.
Hoe Yeen Teck is the head of autonomous solutions at Urban Solutions at ST Engineering.