Through the window pane of my low-floor bus, I survey this quaint, modern metropolis that boasts of a cinematic finesse. Rightly called the garden city, Singapore’s lawns do not have a single twig out of place and the entire cityscape dotted with skyscrapers running from end to end looks majestic. On a closer look, one can spot gargoyles of lions, cranes, bats etc. on the buildings. It looks much like Gotham where Batman fights crime in his comics and movies. The bus takes me to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in west Singapore. This is where the Batmobile comes alive for me.

Remember how the car drives itself to pick up Batman on-demand? The Volvo 7900, which is currently undergoing tests in the university campus, drives like a bigger Batmobile. It is driverless and electric, and was unveiled first time in Singapore by Volvo and NTU researchers. It produces zero emissions and uses 80% less energy than an equivalent diesel bus. The Swedish automaker says that the 12-metre vehicle is the world’s first full-size autonomous electric bus.

It could hit the public roads a year after clearing necessary tests. So, in a few years this bus could actually be able to pick up and drop students in the university campus and then scaled up to other parts of the country. NTU President Subra Suresh says that Singapore is leading the way for smart public transport and would eventually like to take this to other countries. “This research project is an excellent example of the close partnership among NTU, industry and government agencies in translating basic research into products and services for the benefit of Singapore and beyond,” he says.

We take a ride in the bus. It drives silently as the steering moves itself to make a turn and nonchalantly stop at a red light. “It should drive like a normal bus. The driver or the people should not know the difference between this and a diesel bus. That’s the whole point,” Akash Passey, senior vice president, region international, Volvo Buses, tells me.

But why is a country already famed for its public transport system getting into autonomous? The reason is that the government’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) wants the city state to be as car lite as possible—and it wants to do it safely, smartly, and efficiently. Autonomous vehicles have recently earned a bad name after for ethical issues, accident and death risks, and a fear of job losses. This is why Volvo’s bus is undergoing rigorous tests at NTU campus and a public bus operator SMRT’s depot.

“A key focus for autonomous bus trials is to develop the service delivery requirements and enhance commuting experience to provide safe, efficient and comfortable journeys in Singapore’s unique operational setting. SMRT will focus on operator and passenger safety by contributing our operations knowledge in the design of test scenarios for the autonomous bus responsiveness towards road traffic situations, pedestrians and other road users,” Tan Kian Heong, president, SMRT Roads said.

The LTA has pegged the growth rate for cars and motorcycles at 0% by 2030 and is promoting public transport like never before. An extraordinary number of people use public transport in Singapore since it has strict car ownership rules, parking charge, heavy insurance costs and other licensing fees.

Currently, 67% of journeys during peak hours are on public transport, and the goal is to increase this to 75% by 2030. The country also faces land and labour constraints in high-density Singapore. Volvo hopes that autonomous is the way forward.

“Singapore has clearly defined plans on how it wants to develop the public transport system and has acted upon them. It is striking that the government aims for 80% of homes to be to be located within a 10 minute walk from a train station by 2030,” Passey says.

Till the time electric becomes commercial, Hybrids are a good intermediate. Volvo has already supplied to LTA their first 50 diesel hybrid buses that give 35-40% fuel efficiency economy as compared to diesel buses.

Singapore is nearly half the size of Delhi-NCR and yet manages showcase a near-perfect public transport operations. It's an unfair comparison, sure. But could India take some lessons?

“Now I do understand in India, we are hundred times the size. So, every city of ours is a Singapore or a mini-Singapore. I’m aware of that challenge,” says Passey.

Passey feels that one thing that India lacks is that its mix of transport solutions—public and personal are not integrated within themselves and one another.

“We think there’s a great growth story in India on public transport, especially in the context of the development of smart cities and highways. To unlock the potential of public transport, India needs to have a unified regulatory framework for transport in every city or state,” he says.

(For more on Singapore’s public transport read the July 2019 issue of the magazine, now on stands.)

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