Driverless Vehicles on Singapore Roads

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better”, said Elon Musk, arguably one the most prominent entrepreneur in the 21st Century, founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla, at the World Governments’ Summit in Dubai in February 2017. Just a decade ago, autonomous vehicles only appear in dystopian novels and science fiction movies. Today, it is becoming a reality with companies like nuTonomy promising an entire fleet of driverless vehicles in 2018 (Fleetwood, 2017). Therefore, I will be exploring 4 factors to be taken into consideration - namely, environmental effects, funding of infrastructures, the safety of both passengers and pedestrians and finally the ethical debate on autonomous vehicles on Singapore roads.

Firstly, autonomous vehicles will help with environmental conservation when people “buy rides instead of cars” (“Why driverless cars,” 2018), coupled with legislative policies to reduce car ownership. The reduction in vehicles will then have a positive effect on global warming as fewer vehicles on the roads correlate to lesser carbon emissions from ground transportation (Liang, 2017). In fact, Singapore’s introduction of the Vehicle Quota Scheme and Certificate of Entitlement in May 1990 have helped us maintain an optimal number of vehicles on our roads (Lam & Trinh, 2006). An eventual deployment of an autonomous fleet may even persuade more Singaporean car owners to give up their personal vehicles in favour of comfortable, convenient rides – further reducing a typical Singaporean’s carbon footprint.

Despite its promises, autonomous vehicles may not fully integrate into our current roads without investment to existing infrastructures. As the number of autonomous vehicles grows, there is a need to invest in fast and robust wireless communication channels to manage these vehicles (“The long, winding road,” 2017). In addition, some roads may have to be upgraded to accommodate sensors of these autonomous vehicles. This may reduce the budget set aside for improvement works of public transport services such as trains and buses. Without sufficient funds or proper budget allocation, Singapore might end up with both an incomplete autonomous vehicle infrastructure and a broken public transport system.

Safety is an important consideration on the push for autonomous vehicles on Singapore roads. In the first six months of 2016, 1042 people have been arrested from drink-driving in Singapore – with approximately 10% of these people arrested have met in an accident (Liang, 2016). Unlike unpredictable human drivers, autonomous vehicles will not be tired, distracted, or even intoxicated (“The long, winding road,” 2017). Such reliability will improve the safety on the roads for both the passengers and pedestrians. However, considerations must be put in place for a hybrid environment where both humans and autonomous vehicles share the roads, since we do not expect for autonomous vehicles to replace traditional vehicles completely and instantaneously. The work to build this hybrid environment may be more challenging than to implement a single autonomous vehicle system from scratch. Most of the accidents that occurred during the trials of these autonomous vehicles in certain cities have been due to driver negligence (McChristian, 2016). As such, it is recommended to have more trails for the autonomous vehicles in a hybrid environment to iron out any kinks that may surface before we transit fully to a fully autonomous vehicle environment.

Finally, the ethical debate on the implementation of driverless vehicles is the most important factor for consideration. An idea proposed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 has drawn new interest in this debate. He thought of a scenario where an uncontrollable trolley is en-route to crash into 5 persons. Given that you can hypothetically control the situation by diverting the trolley to an alternative route with a head-on collision with 1 person instead, will you act on it? It basically questions the ethical complications arising from sympathetic and utilitarian approach when faced with a moral dilemma. Similarly, should autonomous vehicles prioritise to protect its passengers over pedestrians in an event of an accident, given that the passengers are the paying customer after all (Fleetwood, 2017)? Otherwise, consumers may not even ride these autonomous vehicles if they cannot be assured of their safe arrival, since that in a human-operated vehicle, the driver is more likely to prioritise his own life over the pedestrians.

In conclusion, I feel that these four factors must be taken into consideration before implementing driverless cars in Singapore. Even though some of these deliberations are philosophical, a clear guideline on the operation and use of autonomous vehicles will pave the way for a cohering road use with human road drivers, and eventually a smooth transition to an autonomously driven future.

References:
Fleetwood, J. (2017). Public Health, Ethics, and Autonomous Vehicles. American Journal Of Public Health, 107(4), 632-537.
(2018, January 20). Why driverless cars may mean jams tomorrow. Retrieved 1 February 2018, from https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21735019-they-will-spare-world-neither-traffic-congestion-nor-infrastructure-expense-why
Liang. A (2017, November 3). Driverless cars picking up speed in Singapore. Retrieved 1 February 2018, from https://www.imda.gov.sg/infocomm-and-media-news/whats-trending/2017/2/driverless-cars-picking-up-speed-in-singapore
(2017, May 25). The long, winding road for driverless cars. Retrieved 1 February 2018, from https://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21722628-forget-hype-about-autonomous-vehicles-being-around-cornerreal-driverless-cars-will
McChristian, L., & Corbett, R. (2016). Regulatory Issues Related to Autonomous Vehicles. Journal Of Insurance Regulation, 35(7), 1-15.
Lim. J. Q. (2016, Oct 20). Fewer people caught drink-driving in first half of 2016. Retrieved 2 February 2018, from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/fewer-people-caught-drink-driving-in-first-half-of-2016-7729094
Lam, S. H., & Trinh, D. T. (2006). Land transport policy and public transport in singapore. Transportation, 33(2), 171-188. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11116-005-3049-z

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