The Future of Public Transit - Face Scans, Autonomous Buses and Flying Taxis
Phillip Keane posted on January 18, 2017 |
With driverless taxis already on the roads, is Singapore’s transit system a vision of things to come...
(Image courtesy of Chensiyuan.)
(Image courtesy of Chensiyuan.)
Singapore is known for being the most expensive place on Earth to own a car. 

Don’t believe me? 

A 2016 Toyota Camry will set you back a cool S$145,888. That’s just over 100 grand (USD).

Land is at a premium here. Singapore is very small, measuring just 31 x 17 miles, and with a population of over 6 million people living on the island, the roads would become incredibly congested if all of them were driving, and just think of the pollution.

Jacking up prices so high that almost no one can afford to drive is just one way Singapore regulates the amount of traffic on its roads. Those who do feel like spending Ferrari-levels of cash on a midsize sedan are further taxed by the automated ERP (electronic road pricing) gantries dotted around the island. If you want the luxury of driving your own car, you’re going to pay through the nose for it.

Admittedly, it seems to work. The traffic and pollution problems aren’t nearly as bad as other major cities in the region, such as Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh City.

So there must be an attractive alternative to driving, right?

They wouldn’t just kick you off the road and into a hellish public transport nightmare, would they?

A Model City for Transportation?

Singapore has long seen itself as a model for future transportation systems, having set out the original roadmap for the nation’s ITS (intelligent transport systems) master plan way back in 2006.
Four areas of innovation that SmartMobility 2030 aims to address. (Image courtesy of LTA.)

Four areas of innovation that SmartMobility 2030 aims to address. (Image courtesy of LTA.)

Eight years is a long time in terms of technological and socio-economic change, so to keep abreast of new developments, in 2014 Singapore’s Land Transport Authority revisited the master plan to take stock of industry changes and reformulate accordingly. And so SmartMobility2030 was born.

The basic idea behind the SmartMobility2030 program was to bring researchers in industry and academia together, with the aim of making the tiny nation state more connected. This year, we started to see the results.

Autonomous Public Transport

We’ve covered the Singaporean robotic taxi story before, so I won’t dwell too much on it again here.

In brief, Singapore is the first city to be put autonomous taxis into public use in the world, using a fleet of modified Renaults. The company responsible is a spinout from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research & Technology (SMART) which predicts up to 300,000 autonomous cars on the roads here in future.

LTA is further exploring the idea that an updated transport network doesn’t necessarily need a massive amount of new infrastructure with an autonomous bus. The hybrid vehicle is being developed by the joint LTA-NTU Transport Research Centre and will begin public trials in 2018. Initially, the bus service will run a short public route of 1.4km (0.87 miles) and will be extended farther if all goes well.

Autonomous buses for the people. (Image courtesy of LTA.)
Autonomous buses for the people. (Image courtesy of LTA.)

Regarding the project timeline, Associate Professor Marcelo Ang, acting director of the National University of Singapore's Advanced Robotics Centre, has said that “self-driving buses could be deployed on short routes like a shuttle bus service in as early as five years' time.” Beyond that, he foresees larger integration, longer routes and dynamic routing within 10 years.

A fully mature dynamic routing system will allow a centralized “depot” to monitor passenger numbers on particular routes at particular times (via all manner of data and sensors—more on that later) and will adjust the cadence of the buses arriving accordingly. If there are not enough buses for the route at rush hour, for example, the network can simply deploy more buses. This is also perfect for night services when passenger volume is more sporadic.

The vehicles will be stock buses retrofitted with a robotics package to give them the brains, communications and mechanical hardware needed to operate autonomously.

The buses will be equipped with LIDAR, radar IMUs, V2V / V2I communications units, night vision, GPS and the usual robotic vehicle stuff. 

In addition, a series of pantograph chargers will be installed at the route terminals for fast charging which should, in principle, keep the route running throughout the whole day. The pantograph mast will sense when the bus is beneath it and establish a wireless connection to monitor bus system status. Once the bus’s safety and health has been confirmed, the pantograph will lower onto the bus and engage with the contacts for charging.

Flying Cars

Vahana flying taxi. (Image courtesy of Airbus.)

Vahana flying taxi. (Image courtesy of Airbus.)

Another transportation technology that’s taking off (see what I did there?) is Airbus’ recently revealed flying taxi project. Dubbed “Vahana”, the project involves a small electric vehicle that is fully autonomous and which can be summoned via smartphone app, much like Uber. The first prototype is set to become operational this year while trials of smaller delivery drones will be tested at the National University of Singapore campus.

The delivery drones concept (dubbed the “Skyways” project) is the result of a MOU between Airbus Helicopters and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. It is designed to monitor cargo delivery drones in a real-life environment, laying the groundwork for unmanned air vehicle regulations, including passenger carrying UAVS like Vahana.

 If all goes well, then Airbus states that the production version of the air taxi will come online sometime in 2020, and will become commonplace sometime around 2030.

What’s a futuristic city without flying cars?

The Skyways project. (Image courtesy of Airbus.)
The Skyways project. (Image courtesy of Airbus.)
Apparently the technology required for the hardware is pretty much ready even now. Batteries, sensors, motors and composite materials all already exist at sufficiently advanced stages. The biggest hurdle at the moment is the sense/avoid algorithms, and Airbus is expecting this gap to close in the not too distant future. Of course, we have been promised flying cars for nearly a century, so I’m not holding my breath.

Face-Scanning Fare Collectors

The current MRT system serves as the main backbone of island public transportation, with the buses  and taxis filtering off from the MRT stations into the suburbs. That’s the crux of the national transport system: the MRT moves the bulk of the populace quickly across the island, while the buses (both manned and robotic) take you the final distance to your doorstep.

It is cheap, clean, frequent and reliable. It was also the first fully autonomous underground rail network in the world. Payment for buses and trains (and occasionally taxis) is done via a tap-in/tap-out RFID card called “EZ-Link”, which will calculate your journey across the whole network and make the appropriate deduction from your account.

LTA and ST Electronics want to replace this with a faster face-scanning system. The face-scanning cameras will be placed at the usual gates/turnstiles for entering the station, and the registered user’s account will be billed afterwards (like a phone subscription).

ST Electronics, has said that its facial recognition software can process up to 60 passengers walking through the fare gates every minute. By comparison, the current tapping in/out system can process only 40 passengers per minute. Those who do not wish to have their faces scanned and put into a database (because Illuminati, etc.) can avoid the registration process and just use their RFID cards, which apparently can be scanned through your pocket or bag. The result is a faster system for everyone.

EZ-Link is ubiquitous in Singapore. It is used for bus, train, shopping purchases, food. It doesn’t take a huge stretch to imagine face scanning could be employed in these other domains. If buying a pint of beer or a hamburger with your face is going to become a thing, you can bet that it will take off in Singapore first.

Carrot and Stick

So, you’ve seen the carrot - what of the stick?

There are some amazing alternatives to driving, but what new advances are being made to ensure drivers don’t drive in the first place?

The current system of jacking up the prices of cars, adding the cost of COE (certificate of entitlement), provides a very high barrier to entry for anyone wishing to drive, and of course that’s the point.

Anyone who has managed to sell both kidneys to buy a car is rewarded by the ERP (electronic road pricing) system. The ERP system is a network of gantries dotted across busy roads on the island, which deduct a toll fee from the car as it passes underneath the gantry (via a short wave radio system on the dashboard). The ERP system is not well-loved in Singapore, leaving locals to dub ERP as “Every Road Pay” or “Electronic Robbery in Progress”.

In February last year, LTA announced plans to phase the old ERP system out (yay!) and replace it with a more powerful and all-seeing one (boo!).

An ERP gantry. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
An ERP gantry. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
In 2020, LTA will begin deployment of the new system which will do away with the gantry altogether and replay the current on-dash card reader with a new GNSS-enabled unit, which will allow for more accurate measurements, distance-pricing and presumably less drivers.

So if you’re concerned about the rising cost of motoring, then it’s not going to be a fun time to be a car owner in Singapore, but at least your options are plentiful (and cheap) as a passenger on public transit. 

And let’s be honest: you want to try a flying car.

Given the amount of research into these areas in Singapore’s 2 main universities, I think it’s fair to say that not only will we see new advances in technology coming from the city-state, but progress in terms of regulation as well. Singapore is taking the bold move of putting these vehicles and systems into the public way before anyone else does, so it stands to reason that they could potentially become world leaders in this area, if not for the technology then certainly in terms of the implementation and regulatory lessons learned.

For anyone making bets on what the future of public transport will look like, Singapore offers a pretty good preview.

To learn more about the past, present and future of transportation, check out our feature on The Road to Driverless Cars: 1925 – 2025.

What are your predictions for the future of public transit? Comment below.

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