We need a driverless road to the future

  • Living
  • Sunday, 15 Jan 2017

A handout image from August 2016, issued by US start-up company nuTonomy, showing a nuTonomy self-driving vehicle in Singapore. In a world first, nuTonomy officially launched its driverless taxis in Singapore, allowing selected passengers to use a smartphone app to order a car. Photo: EPA

You know what’s cool about the Klang Valley’s new MRT system? It’s modern and comfortable to ride in. There is a station just 10 minutes’ walk away from my house. And the trains are autonomous so you can stand right at the front window and pretend you’re driving a RM50bil project.

The question I have is, “Is it worth it?”.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy having so many amenities within walking distance of my home, so I welcome the opportunity to stretch my legs even more, especially since four of the stations are near shopping malls I frequent.

The first thing that surprised me was that it takes roughly the same amount of time to take the MRT to these malls as it does for me to drive there. The time taken navigating traffic and finding parking when I drive ends up being more than walking to the station and back.

What about price? Well, that’s comparable as well. It’s definitely cheaper for a single person to take the MRT, mainly because a return ticket is about the same price as parking a car at the mall. Factor in additional elements like petrol used and vehicle wear and tear, and savings are even greater. However, if more than one person travels in the car, then this cost is divided up among the passengers. I estimate the break-even point is two people in a car, if you only consider operating expenses (ie, petrol and maintenance).

So, obviously, the conclusion is that if I’m travelling alone I should take the MRT and if I have friends and family, I should drive, right?

Not really. There’s one extra wrinkle that I haven’t mentioned: taxis. Or, in particular, cars for hire, including taxis and services like Uber and Grab.

At first, it doesn’t seem comparable. For the routes I’m looking at, taxis come out to be roughly four times as expensive as taking the MRT, and twice as expensive driving myself.

But if I add the fact that I spend money to buy a car (technically, I lose money because the value of a car depreciates over time), and I need to pay for things like car insurance and road tax, then the gap narrows. (The cost to own and operate a car is somewhere between 70 sen and RM1.50 per kilometre depending on what assumptions you make; Uber and Grab charge about RM1 to RM1.50 per kilometre.)

I can’t help thinking: What if instead of building the MRT lines, the Government had spent that money modernising taxi fleets to make them more reliable and less prone to price gouging? Basically, do what the Ubers and Grabs of the world have done but with the help of an angel investor with RM50bil to back you.

A Mass Taxi Transportation service (MTT, that’s what I’m calling it) would not be tied down to predetermined routes and stations but could pick you up from your home and send you directly to where you want to go. The vehicles would be able to move around to where demand is highest through the day, optimising use.

You end up with an on-demand, point-to-point service that also happens to be reliable and – hopefully – not subject to a taxi driver’s whims to negotiate “extra fees”.

To meet the MRT’s target of ferrying more than 500,000 passengers a day, you would need 50,000 taxis, which is significantly higher than the fleet of 37,000 taxis that currently service all of KL. But even if you triple the number of taxis available, you would still have a budget of up to RM750,000 per car.

I can already hear you protesting. “But isn’t the whole point of public transportation to reduce traffic?”

Well, given that there are about five million cars on KL roads, 50,000 extra vehicles isn’t that big a deal. And if the MTT was reliable, people would maybe think twice about buying a car and rely on public transportation instead.

On top of that, I said to “modernise” the taxis. This is a long-term project whose objective would be to remove it’s weakest existing point: The driver.

Google and Tesla have begun to demonstrate in real-world traffic conditions that not only is a self-driving car possible, it is safer. And the other benefit is that computers can calculate optimum driving behaviour so that traffic is both smoother and faster. The future is much closer than it seems.

One forecast is that adding self-driving technology to a car will drop to an extra RM30,000 to RM50,000 by 2025. By 2035 it could cost as little as RM10,000.

So the only issue I see is that these cars for hire currently cost four times as much as a train ticket for an MRT ride that is as long as the car ride. But that’s when we take the phrase “ride sharing” literally. Don’t think of it as a car that comes to your house, imagine instead an MPV that can take half a dozen people. Computers would route these taxis dynamically so that one car would pick up several people in one optimised trip. The eventual cost may even be less than an equivalent MRT ride.

The only obstacle you might say is that this is a high-risk speculative project, and we need solutions now. Well, Helsinki does have a project trying out driverless buses, but it’s true no country has driverless taxis on public roads – that is, until Singapore became the first country to begin testing last year.

But then we Malaysians have always seen Singaporeans as derring-do risk takers who dream big and break rules to take chances on their imagination.

So as cool as the driverless MRT trains are, I think a future of driverless cars is even better.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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