Aboard the Volvo 7900 Electric, I look through the window at the greenery outside as the low-floored bus makes its way through the test course at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

It is drizzling outside as I occasionally glance at the cockpit. The driver wears an impassive look while the bus moves smoothly at slow speed. When the bus negotiates turns, I look again at the cockpit. The driver is nonchalant. As the signal at a junction turns red, the bus slows down and comes to a stop before a zebra-crossing. During the whole ride, the driver, actually a safety assistant, does not have to man the steering wheel. The bus, which is zero-emission and uses 80% less energy than a diesel-run equivalent, is self-driving.

Unveiled in March at NTU, the 12-metre single-decker is the world’s first full-size autonomous electric bus. It has been developed by Volvo in collaboration with NTU and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) of Singapore. This is one of the two autonomous Volvo buses developed for trials for fixed route and scheduled services. Singapore, which envisions a car-lite society, hopes autonomous buses will play a role in improving its public transport system, second only to Hong Kong’s in terms of availability, affordability, efficiency, convenience, and sustainability, according to a McKinsey report.

“It is in line with Singapore’s vision of deploying autonomous vehicles to improve accessibility and connectivity for commuters,” said Lam Wee Shann, chief innovation and technology officer, LTA, in a statement. Around 67% of peak-hour commute in Singapore, which has a high population density, is realised by its public transport system. The goal is to raise this share to 75% by 2030.

A Volvo AB 7900 electric autonomous passenger bus sits at a charging station atthe Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of Autonomous Vehicles(CETRAN) of Nanyang Technology University in Singapore.
A Volvo AB 7900 electric autonomous passenger bus sits at a charging station atthe Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of Autonomous Vehicles(CETRAN) of Nanyang Technology University in Singapore.
Image : Gettyimages

The buses are equipped with four light detection and ranging sensors (LIDARS), stereo-vision cameras that capture images in 3D, and an advanced global navigation satellite system which enables it to detect objects coming in its way. It is managed by a comprehensive artificial intelligence (AI) system developed by NTU researchers. The buses are undergoing robust testing at the Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of Autonomous Vehicles NTU (CETRAN) inside the NTU Smart Campus. The test grounds at the centre can replicate the road and tropical weather conditions in Singapore such as heavy rain and partially flooded roads. Both buses will undergo further tests—one at the NTU, and the other at a testing facility at a bus depot of SMRT, a public transport operator, which will analyse the bus’ fitness for operating on public roads. According to Tan Kian Heong, president, SMRT Roads, test scenarios will be designed based on its operations knowledge.

Singapore’s efforts to introduce autonomous mobility solutions will take care of one more thing—the lack of skilled drivers. In a country where labour shortage has been identified as a risk to economic growth, the role of drivers is the third-most difficult to fill after that of sales representatives and engineers, found a 2018 survey by Manpower Group, an employment trends tracker. More importantly, if one is looking for instances where various stakeholders come together to improve people’s lives, the self-driving 7900 makes the cut. “This research project is an excellent example of the close partnership among academia, industry, and government agencies in translating basic research into products and services for the benefit of Singapore and beyond,” says NTU president Subra Suresh.

Image : Photo Courtesy: Volvo
As and when the market [in India] is ready for high quality electric, we’ll be there.
Akash Passey, senior vice president, Region International, Volvo Bus Corporation.

A KPMG report ranked Singapore second in the world for preparedness for and openness to autonomous vehicles though it will be a couple of years before people can hail and ride autonomous buses in the country. Volvo says that since there are no clear global guidelines and safeguards in place for autonomous vehicles, it will take time for the technology to be commercial. “We are currently testing autonomous. They [Singapore] already have hybrid, full electric on special lines. So, you’re not saying overnight everything will change. It’s a planned transition where there is an ac - ceptance of the fact that clean diesel will still remain, hybrid will be somewhere in between, but electric has to be tried out,” says Akash Passey, senior vice president, region international, Volvo Bus Corporation. The automaker has supplied 50 diesel hybrid buses to LTA. The buses give 35-40% fuel efficiency.

Passey believes India can learn mobility lessons from Singapore, though it is roughly half the size of Delhi. “Transport challenges are the same across the globe. When you talk about an excellent public transport system, that journey Singapore has clearly defined [in terms of] what it wants to do. The government aims for 80% of homes to be to be located within a 10-minute walk from a train/ bus station by 2030,” Passey says.

Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles scheme, India is looking to promote electric mobility. In June the department of heavy industries invited proposals from state transport departments for deploying 5,000 buses. Selected cities will be offered 40% of cost, or up to `55 lakh, as subsidy for 10-12 m buses. “The main intention of extending demand incentive for electric buses is to reduce the upfront capital cost,” the government had said. However, Volvo believes “subsidies aren’t the sole drivers for market demand”. “When it comes to fully electric buses, across the world including in India, they are being subsidised by governments, implying that they don’t stand on their own economic merit as yet,” explains Passey.

Experts believe electric buses have more viability and make sense for a country like India. “Like a taxi may have a good day or a bad day, but it is not so with buses. Almost all buses require some amount of public support. It’s very rare to say that public transport can be profitable on its own. If you are willing to support a positive public outcome, I don’t see a problem with more support for e-mobility,” said Rahul Tongia, Brookings India Fellow, Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate.

To be sure, there are automakers in India that make and sell buses with hybrid and electric technologies. Tata Motors, India’s largest maker of trucks and buses, recently won orders from six states for supplying 255 electric buses of which 161 have been delivered. “This is something where we invest today, and the return on investment is going to come as the electric vehicle population is going to increase. We are not in the nascent stage anymore,” says Guenter Butschek, CEO and managing director, Tata Motors.

Buses made by Olectra Greentech in partnership with BYD Auto Industry, a Chinese firm which makes hybrid and electric cars, run in Himachal Pradesh and Mumbai. Yet, Volvo prefers to wait. It says if there is demand for hybrid or electric solutions, it has a product road map available. “We will bring it whenever there is a need. We’re hoping there will be more focus on public transport with the new government. We already have intercity buses and hybrids,” says Passey. “As and when the market is ready for high quality electric, we’ll be there.”

The writer was in Singapore at the invitation of Volvo Buses.

This story was originally published in the July, 2019 issue of the magazine.

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