Shaping the future of mobility in Singapore

The city of Singapore is shaping the future of mobility working with ETH Zurich researchers and exploring the potential of personalised, electrified and automated public transport, with the help of Emilio Frazzoli’s start-up, NuTonomy, which develops control software for autonomous vehicles

NuTonomy began drawing up plans to test self-driving cars in Singapore back in 2014. At around the same time, Frazzoli, who was then a professor at MIT, published an article in which he investigated how replacing all the private vehicles in the 719-square-kilometre city-state with shared, self-driving vehicles would affect traffic volumes. His results showed that the mobility needs of Singapore’s entire population could be met with some 40 percent of the vehicles (350,000 instead of 800,000). One year later, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled his vision of a “car-lite future” based on autonomous vehicles, the expansion of public transport and the fostering of slow traffic such as walking and cycling.

“The goal of my research group is a form of mobility that combines the convenience of a private car with the sustainability of public transport.” In other words, a kind of Uber, but driverless, much more economical and available. Plus – thanks to electrification and better capacity use – a solution that offers significantly lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Right now, people use private cars, on average, just 5 percent of the time, which means the cars spend the remaining 95 percent of the time standing idle in car parks and garages or on the street. This makes no sense in terms of sustainability, urban development or resource efficiency.

Pieter Fourie conducts research into the cities of the future on behalf of ETH Zurich’s Future Cities Laboratory. Fourie heads up the Engaging Mobility project, which brought together government authorities and universities at a preliminary workshop in July 2017, to define the basic conditions required to implement city-wide, on-demand mobility using autonomous cars and buses.

Fourie explores issues using the MATSim simulation platform developed by a group led by Professor Kay Axhausen at ETH Zurich’s Institute for Transport Planning and Systems. MATSim is agent-based, which means the simulation is driven by the behaviour of individual agents rather than by overarching rules. “On the basis of Singapore’s most recent demographics, we are modelling a synthetic population that is as close as possible to the real one,” Fourie says.

Within this population, each individual agent exhibits a certain mobility behaviour and has a specific destination based on real-life traffic data. Fourie is now at the stage of tinkering with the underlying conditions, including the number of vehicles employed, their size, the maximum permissible waiting times for passengers, the availability of parking spaces and a variety of different traffic flows. He then lets the synthetic population loose on the simulation for 24 hours. The system automatically evaluates how efficiently the individual agents were able to reach their destinations in each scenario.

Right now, Fourie’s team is programming these kinds of simulations for the waterfront area of Tanjong Pagar, a district of some 2 square kilometres in the western part of Singapore. This site is currently being converted from a container terminal into a residential and commercial area.

Despite these rapid developments in Singapore, Emilio Frazzoli still sees plenty of challenges ahead, especially when it comes to dealing with chaotic environments. “We still don’t know exactly how autonomous vehicles should behave in traffic,” he says, explaining that this involves dozens of decision-making dilemmas that are an integral part of everyday traffic situations. In a recent article, Frazzoli and his team estimated that it would take 200 rules in 12 hierarchy groups to prepare vehicles for every possible scenario, including low-priority rules such as not frightening animals on the edge of the road. Frazzoli feels the time has come for a broader public debate on autonomous driving.