Autonomous vehicles can drive the future of mobility

March 04, 2019 16:51
A Navya SAS autonomous electric passenger bus travels past a crosswalk at a test circuit of Nanyang Technology University in Singapore on May 22, 2018. Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong and Singapore, like many cities across the world, are grappling with growing congestion, overcrowded transport and roadside pollution. Add into the mix limited land supply, and it’s clear that the prioritization of electric vehicles and connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) are just what these two cities need.

Technology is changing the way we move from point A to B – the most advanced CAVs can communicate with each other and the surrounding environment without the need for a human driver. A study by the Boston Consulting Group indicates that by the end of the next decade, 20-25 percent of the miles driven by Americans will be replaced by fully driverless vehicles operated by ride-sharing services. While the US market differs slightly in mobility challenges, one can expect that the adoption level will be in-line with population and environmental demands.

In Hong Kong, the government has ambitiously targeted 30 percent CAV adoption by 2020 – in a city where 70 percent of cars on the road are privately owned. Singapore has forecast a 10-fold increase in electric vehicles for car sharing and taxis by 2020, and plans to have self-driving buses and shuttles on public roads by 2022.

The arrival of CAV is inevitable. However, exactly what form this disruption will take in our cities is yet to be fully defined. Cities around the world have different visions of suitability and adoption with Singapore putting CAV at the heart of the future of mass transit in its Smart Nation vision, bypassing tech-savvy capitals like New York, San Francisco and Paris. There are even plans to integrate a 5G network into the transportation system itself.

Regulatory and government influence

Since 2016, Singapore has been developing CAV technology through collaboration with the government, automotive manufacturers, technology companies and universities, carrying out tests to ensure CAV safety and feasibility on public roads. This year, it will trial its first self-driving shuttle bus that will operate in mixed traffic conditions alongside regular buses, cars and motorcycles.

Hong Kong has also started to venture into the autonomous vehicle market, albeit with only emergent ambitions due to a more complex governance climate. It’s worth noting that in 2017 a science professor and his students were not allowed to test their CAV in Hong Kong because the current law would not allow it; the test was eventually carried out in neighboring innovation hub, Shenzhen. Since CAVs are not yet regulated in most countries, flexibility and willingness from the government to evolve current regulatory framework is key to push its development forward.

A recent forum in Singapore discussed the city-state’s attitude toward CAV, and while there is no doubt it will create some challenges, the government clearly believes that the opportunities outweigh temporary difficulties. Other governments in Asia should be encouraged to accelerate past the uncertainty and form regulatory policies that proactively shape the CAV landscape to meet the needs of their populations.

Mobility as a Service – a revolution that can accelerate adoption

Hong Kong has a world-class Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system, and although private car ownership rates are low compared to other developed cities, the rise in the number of private cars is an issue the government is trying to address. Hong Kong has allowed uncontrolled private car growth, leading to a 35 percent increase over the past decade. At the end of 2018, there were 613,065 private cars registered. Hong Kong would benefit from a revolution in mobility, known as mobility as a service (MaaS), which looks at shifting away from private transportation towards mobility solutions that are consumed as a service.

CAV adoption in Hong Kong is a viable way of supporting a city lacking land. By developing CAV routes that complement the MTR system and focusing on ‘first and last mile’ connections around stations, people can get to their homes and places of work more quickly. This would greatly reduce the need for street parking and garages, freeing up land. Ultimately, with affordable and convenient transportation options widely available, people can spread out further, decreasing pressure on congested areas.

Singapore has a similarly excellent Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, but the government’s attitude toward private cars is much more progressive. In February 2018, the growth cap for all cars and motorcycles was cut from 0.25 percent a year to zero. Singapore is ahead of Hong Kong in its attitude toward MaaS with the world’s first MaaS operator, MaaS Global from Finland, starting operations in Singapore and pushing integration of various forms of transport services into a single mobility application.

The city-state has also taken pre-emptive actions in its development of smart road pricing which provides a critical framework for regulating how scarce road space is used and paid for. In 1983, Hong Kong became one of the first cities in the world to pilot electronic road pricing, but unlike Singapore, it has made little progress towards wide-scale implementation and as a broader aspect of driving CAV adoption.

For a city to fully embrace the benefits of CAV, there are four main steps that encourage a logical progression towards its readiness. Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore can better prepare themselves for the future of mass transit by adopting ride-hailing services, car sharing, MaaS, and creating autonomous infrastructure that will allow for safe CAV implementation.

1. Ride-hailing – the adoption of Uber and other app-based ride-hailing services enable the collection of data and provide comfortable door-to-door transport for citizens. In Hong Kong, these services face opposition from the taxi industry which has traditionally been very strong. While ride-hailing operators don’t need to pay for any licensing fees, taxi operators must pay HK$7 million for their taxi license, leading some unions to threaten legal action against Hong Kong to prevent this type of competition. In contrast, Singapore has been much more progressive in its acceptance of ride-sharing schemes, with more competitors, such as Grab, continually entering the market.

2. Car sharing – car sharing is designed for local users to support community transit needs while meeting environmental objectives by decreasing private car ownership, reducing emissions and pressure for parking spaces. While Hong Kong has yet to adopt car sharing, Blue SG was launched in Singapore in 2017, providing 80 all-electric cars for public use on a paid subscription basis. There is a huge opportunity in Hong Kong for this type of membership-based car sharing to reduce traffic congestion and meet door-to-door transit needs.

3. MaaS – Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is the integration of a variety of different transport modes into a single data platform with a standardized payment and ticketing system. MaaS Global from Finland has begun operations in Singapore, partnering with major car rental companies, car sharing, bike sharing and scooter sharing operators as well as public transport in Singapore to provide a seamless digital offering. While Hong Kong has been slow to embrace some necessary elements for MaaS like car sharing, it can still work to integrate existing initiatives to create a MaaS offering that improves citizen mobility.

4. Autonomous infrastructure – a connected city can be achieved through the development of a smart city and supporting infrastructure that includes data-collection mechanisms to anticipate traffic conditions and machine readable signs, among other innovations. In Hong Kong, significant investments have been made to advance traffic systems, data collection and sensors, and an Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) Pilot Scheme will be implemented in the near future. Singapore is also ahead of the curve, with an extremely high-quality road and communications network, and open-data based analytics that help reduce overcrowding on public transport.

Cities around the world must continue to innovate and bring solutions that address citizens’ mobility needs and concerns. Every city should be investing in innovation and testing of new mobility solutions that will allow CAV to improve the environment and the quality of life for citizens in urban areas.

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Head of Hong Kong and Macau, Arcadis