Singapore is in the driver’s seat of autonomous vehicles

Tropical storms are a daily fact of life in Singapore, as any visitor to the city-state soon discovers. It’s why Singapore has created a rain machine to recreate the showers in a mini town for testing self-driving vehicles.

The facility – which also features skyscrapers, a flood zone, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings – shows Singapore’s determination to make autonomous vehicles a fact of life, too, sooner than any country in the world.

The testing site at Nayang Technological University is one of the factors KPMG cited for ranking Singapore top in Asia and second in the world after the Netherlands in autonomous vehicle readiness. The consulting firm said Singapore is doing more than any other country to prepare the infrastructure and ground rules to put autonomous vehicles on the road.

“The government is very proactive in thinking about the future of mobility,” according to Satya Ramamurthy, a partner at KPMG in Singapore. “It is seriously investigating the possibilities as well as preparing for a regulatory environment that will facilitate a future that is autonomous.”

The ingredients of Singapore’s rise as a high-tech and financial services dynamo are today also turning the city-state into an autonomous driving pioneer. Singapore ranks highest in the world in availability of high-speed mobile Internet. Nanyang Technological University came second in this year’s Nikkei-Elsevier ranking of most-cited AI papers, trailing only Microsoft. And European business school INSEAD ranked Singapore second globally after Switzerland for fostering entrepreneurial talent. An attractive lifestyle, English-speaking culture, outstanding infrastructure and low taxes are combining to draw some of the world’s best tech talent.

Singapore’s road to autonomous vehicle leadership is paved with genuine achievement. It was the first country in the world to launch trials of driverless taxis on real roads in 2016. In January, Singapore introduced a set of national standards for the self-driving vehicle industry that are believed to be the first in world, including guidelines on cybersecurity, speed limits and required space between vehicles. A bus company is on the verge of launching year-long trials of a driverless shuttle service. And in 2022, Singapore plans to open three districts – Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District – to self-driving commuter buses and shuttles.

All of the real-time activity on roads and testing sites is providing Singapore with masses of data that are the lifeblood of all artificial intelligence systems. The ability to attract major global players to experiment with driverless vehicles in Singapore is fast giving the city-state a depth of expertise that will be hard to beat. And the momentum Singapore has created through proactive regulation and technological openness can be expected to be self-reinforcing and only accelerate.

Britain’s Dyson recently announced it will move its global headquarters to Singapore and build an electric vehicle plant in the city-state. Other major companies including BMW, Volvo and Toyota, are turning Singapore into their real-life playground for driverless innovation, and forging research collaborations with Nanyang Technological University.

Singapore is trying to curb car ownership to reduce congestion and pollution, and preserve green spaces in its limited land mass. Car ownership is expensive in Singapore, with high taxes and maintenance costs, creating powerful incentives for alternative mobility solutions. Much of the city-state’s emphasis in self-driving vehicles is as mobility as a service (MaaS) – including car-sharing, ride-hailing and shuttle buses.

Ultimately it’s public enthusiasm that will prove one of the critical factors in determining which societies go driverless the fastest: “Public attitudes towards autonomous vehicles will shape this future,” said a report by insurer AIG, which highlighted Singaporeans’ embrace of driverless technologies.

Indeed, KPMG ranked Singapore top globally in consumer acceptance of driverless cars, noting “the entire city-state of Singapore is effectively a test area for AVs, meaning all residents may see the technology in development”.