Light-touch approach on new technologies

The challenge of legislating evolving technologies was on full display in Parliament yesterday, as the House debated and passed new laws that regulate drones and third-party taxi apps.

Both technologies - flying pilotless vehicles, and services that seamlessly match those in need of a taxi with cabbies - are powerful and have the ability to transform lives and lifestyles.

They are also morphing at speeds which can force many a plodding legislature onto the back foot. There will always be a gap between new technologies and the law's ability to rein them in.

So it was encouraging to see Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew avoid the presumption that he could do so.

Instead he adopted an approach that erred on the side of under-regulation and which provides ample room for development and experimentation.

The light-touch approach on third-party apps like GrabTaxi will be welcomed by Singaporeans familiar with that mix of fury and frustration that the cab system here can invoke.

These apps have been an unequivocal boon for consumers, cabbies and the overall efficiency of the industry here. Passengers can summon a ride with less effort, and drivers avoid empty cruising.

The new regulations will require these apps to register with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and provide some basic services like lost-and-found.

They must also ban bidding and pre-trip tipping.

But the rules do not infringe on their nimbleness, like the practice of surge pricing, which makes rides more expensive when demand is high.

Elsewhere, the reception for these apps has not been so friendly, with Germany and China among the countries which have banned them outright, or placed restrictions on their use.

The Singapore Government's approach is possible because it is not bound either to labour unions or huge taxi companies.

Both of these have an interest in swaying legislation against the disruptive technology to protect their own financial interest, and experience elsewhere has shown that doing so could be to the detriment of passengers.

This is not to say that these apps are faultless.

The aggressive moves of some players to gain market share by exploiting loopholes - brought up by MPs like taxi union adviser Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC) - must be closely watched.

In bringing the apps under the LTA's remit, the law ensures that someone is watching.

Perhaps more importantly, it ensures that the purveyors of the technology know that someone is watching - an awareness that will pre-emptively regulate behaviour.

It is the same for the drones law, which brought regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles, as they are otherwise known, under the remit of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).

Where once operators had to apply for up to three different permits from different agencies, it will now be a one-stop shop.

The Government is requiring a permit for drones which are above 7kg, those used commercially, or used over sensitive areas.

Several MPs brought up the danger of invasion of privacy. Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) suggested banning them in HDB estates, for fear of residents being spied on.

Drone technology is very new, and poses a legitimate threat to security and privacy.

But its potential to transform - from current uses in surveying disaster areas or spotting oil spills, to the game-changing future possibility of deliveries-via-drone - is important enough that as much space as possible, both physical and symbolic, must be given for their experimentation and development.

Mr Lui has another reason to nurture these various transport technologies.

The Transport Ministry has made clear - although not loudly - that Singapore's vehicle population growth will ultimately be capped at zero in the not-too-distant future, down from the current 0.25 per cent.

Many Singaporeans still seem to believe that the current high prices of certificates of entitlement (COEs) are a seasonal phenomenon, and that they merely need to wait around until COE prices plunge to a 2008 level of $1 again.

That is a pipe dream which the Government is not trying very hard to correct. It's easy to see why: ruling out private car ownership for a large swathe of Singaporeans is an impossible sell, and is likely to be politically costly.

Transport technologies - whether an app that brings a cab to you, or a drone that might one day take delivery vehicles off the roads - is its best bet yet to ease the pain.

This article was first published on May 12, 2015.
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