Those at the technological vanguard will nod in approval that three new towns – Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District – have been picked for the initial deployment of driverless vehicles. Once safety and reliability are proven, residents and workers can make such shuttles part of their daily commute from 2022.
While the notion of robots at the wheel is well established, the presence of a human hand in transport is still innately reassuring. Thus, although the autopilot mode is standard in air travel, people rest easy because there is a human pilot on board. There is a sense that when technical glitches or novel situations arise, human judgment is the better fallback as life and limb depend on the manner in which a crisis is handled.
However, driverless trains have become a fixture of Singapore’s transport scene. Self-driving cars and taxis, driverless campus buses, truck platooning systems, and unmanned road sweepers are slated to follow suit. As these arrivals become unremarkable, the habitual can be expected to overcome the instinctive, paving the way to a future in which autonomous vehicle technology revolutionises travel. Commuters should not opt out of that future. Instead, they ought to recognise that it is upon and around them.
In the circumstances, Singaporeans are called upon to exercise no more than the usual caution that they should display when taking public transport or crossing the street. Certainly, software problems in autonomous vehicles can cause accidents, but their engineered reflexes should not fall short of those of human drivers.
If anything, technology avoids the human drawbacks of fatigue, distraction and emotion when it operates at optimal levels. Operators must ensure that those optimal levels are maximal as well when it comes to safety. No realistic diversion from automation is possible, but it must be safe.
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