IDA eyes airwaves for driverless cars

IDA eyes airwaves for driverless cars

Singapore is taking its first coordinated step to promote driverless vehicles, with a proposal to set aside mobile airwaves for them.

The vehicles operate via wireless controllers typically installed on lamp posts and traffic lights that send information warning them about other vehicles, and when to slow down or stop.

Following the United States' lead in the field, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) has proposed to allocate and regulate airwaves in the 5.9 GHz frequency band for automotive use.

It hopes to enable the development of new transport services such as driverless vehicles, intelligent road pricing, parking management, fleet management and road junction safety.

The long-term aims are to improve road safety, ease traffic congestion and cut pollution.

The IDA said in a consultation paper published on its website late last month: "The technologies rely on wireless communications... to enable the transmission of information between vehicles and road infrastructure, and among vehicles."

The first driverless vehicle trial here started in August 2014, with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) testing a shuttle with French driverless carmaker Navya. It does not use the 5.9 GHz frequency.

But some vendors have already developed communications systems using this frequency.

One of them, Dutch firm NXP Semiconductors, is working with NTU to fit existing cars with its technology so they can self-drive safely.

The trial, which began with three cars in April last year, now involves 10 cars in the NTU campus.

By 2019, it will expand to 100 vehicles and 50 roadside wireless control units.

NTU Associate Professor Peter Chong, who is leading the effort, said the IDA's proposal - if it goes through - will spur developments in intelligent vehicles.

He said: "With Singapore taking a position to use the 5.9 GHz frequency band for automotive purposes, more companies can confidently start trials."

Mr Vivek Vaidya, vice-president of Automotive & Transportation at market research firm Frost & Sullivan, said that mobile frequency regulation is a must for critical infrastructure like transport.

He said: "Autonomous vehicles have to be connected to an ecosystem of traffic controls, for instance. Airwaves use has to be regulated to avoid interference with other systems using the same band and for security."

Singapore's new electronic road pricing system - which will track individual vehicles and bill motorists based on the distance travelled on congested roads - could be the first part of such a system to be realised.

In October 2014, the Land Transport Authority called for a tender for the new electronic road pricing system, which could be in place by 2020 pending the appointment of a vendor. But autonomous vehicles will take longer to accept.

The Transport Ministry told The Straits Times that self-driving technology will be ready for widespread use in only the next 10 to 15 years.

Mr Vaidya said this is due partly to regulatory hurdles, asking: "Who is going to be liable for accidents?"

Journey towards self-driving vehicles

- Driverless vehicle trials in Singapore started as early as August 2014, when Nanyang Technological University tested a shuttle with French driverless carmaker Navya. The trial is still ongoing.

- Two driverless buggies developed by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and the National University of Singapore took to the tarmac in the Chinese and Japanese gardens last year.

- Two memoranda of understanding signed by the Transport Ministry last October are expected to put more driverless vehicles on the roads. The first was with port operator PSA to jointly develop autonomous truck platooning technology for cargo transport between terminals. The other was with Sentosa Development Corp and ST Engineering to test self-driving shuttles in Sentosa.

This article was first published on Jan 2, 2016.
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