Nº 6 2015 > Celebrating ITU’s 150 Years
Intelligent transport systems
Innovating with James: Are driverless cars the answer to improving road safety?
Cityscapes may be redefined by 2025 with the introduction of driverless technology designed to reduce traffic and improve road safety. James Fu and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology team are working to innovate automotive technology and change the way we commute.
There are many reasons to own a car; they provide drivers with greater mobility and independence, and for some can even act as a status symbol. These reasons, coupled with increasing affordability and availability, have led to a rapid growth in car ownership — in 2010 there were 1.015 billion cars worldwide, but it is predicted that there will be 1.7 billion on the road by 2035. This growth will adversely affect travel time. These additional vehicles will also compound current safety statistics: there are 1.24 million road traffic deaths per year worldwide, with drink driving and distracted driving, such as texting while driving, leading causes of road traffic accidents.
I finished my PhD in mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I then joined the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Future Urban Mobility research group, and have since become the Project Lead of the autonomous vehicles group.
Our work focuses on developing the intelligence and decision making behind the smart vehicle — how does the vehicle interpret the environment? How can it tell if an object is moving towards it and act accordingly?
Developed over six months, hardware and software architecture used on a driverless golf buggy was replicated onto the Shared Computer Operated Transport (SCOT), an electric car converted into a driverless vehicle for use on public roads. It provides Mobility on Demand (MoD), a simple concept whereby intelligent electric vehicles drive independent from human interference, stopping to pick up and drop off passengers. It is a flexible transport system, balancing demand with real-time planning.
The car was then retrofitted with off-the-shelf Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensors. Maps of the environment are built with LIDAR sensor data and the on-board computers use SMART developed algorithms to understand the 3D environment using 2D LIDAR scans.
A tilted-down LIDAR is mounted on the roof, enabling it to detect its current location; logging a user input destination, the car plans a route based on its current location and the pre-built map. A predictor is used to determine if a dynamic obstacle would come into the car’s path, allowing the car to manoeuvre appropriately based on the obstacle’s proximity.
This enhances pedestrian and passenger safety while enabling the car to navigate dense and heavily populated areas, tunnels and places where Global Positioning System (GPS) signals are otherwise hindered.
What are the advantages of driverless cars?
Driverless cars can solve the “first and last mile problem” — the distance between the house and the start of the transport network, such as the bus stop or train station, and from the end of the transport network to the office. It also addresses the “rebalancing issue” — getting a car to the next car-sharing customer from the previous customer without needing a driver.
Simulations also show that twice as many driverless cars can go through intersections as regular cars — which can ease congestion especially during peak hours — and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by stop and start driving. However, the largest benefit of driverless technology is the ability to serve multiple customers at once with intelligent routing, reducing the number of cars on the road by an estimated two thirds.
The technology also revolutionizes road safety. Computers do not have emotions, get tired at the wheel, get distracted by a mobile phone or drive aggressively. This can significantly reduce car fatalities. On-board sensors detect when a person runs in front of the driverless car and immediately perform an emergency stop. Accessibility is also another benefit; people who were previously excluded from car ownership and use such as the elderly, disabled or young, can have easy access to mobility.
To better understand driverless technology, SMART deployed two autonomous golf buggies fitted with SMART technology to the Chinese and Japanese gardens in the Jurong Lake District in Singapore. The pilot demonstrated the concept of MoD, and increased public awareness. For six days between 23 October and 1 November 2014, people could book a ride to and from ten pre-determined locations via an online booking system. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication meant the buggies selected routes by enabling them to locate each other to avoid overlapping paths to ensure efficient deployments.
The vehicles carried more than 500 people in over 220 trips across 360 km. The demonstration was incredibly popular, and many people said they hoped to see the technology as part of the transport system one day.
This article is an abridgement.