Taxi drivers here could be obsolete in three years

Singapore is fast approaching the era of self-driving taxis, says one expert…

SANTA CLARA, USA — Singapore could be the first country in the world to get a widespread transport service made up entirely of self-driving cars.

That’s the view of Glen De Vos, the chief technology officer of Delphi Corporation, a major automotive supplier that is working to launch just such a robot taxi business here.

Delphi already has one self-driving car on the road here, and will introduce two more this month to gather more data as it prepares to operate an on-demand taxi service minus taxi drivers.

The company has been working with the Land Transport Authority since August last year on an autonomous taxi trial. The project is designed to figure out what is needed on the infrastructure side — in terms of the road network, data centres and so on — to make robot cabs viable here.

If all goes to plan, by 2020 you should be able to summon a driverless car with your smartphone to take you wherever you want.

“We’re not doing it as a science experiment. We want to work with the LTA to actually launch a commercial service,” says De Vos (above). “I would put Singapore at the very top of the list of cities that could deploy this quickly.”

Delphi’s self-driving Audis have 26 cameras and sensors that scan the world around them constantly, but what really makes them run isn’t electronic eyes.

It’s brains.

If Intel has its way, those brains will come from its factories. The chip-making giant’s microprocessors already power practically everything with a keyboard, and it’s scrambling to have a presence that’s as ubiquitous on the road as it is in the office.

In common with more than 100 autonomous prototypes around the world, Delphi’s Audi is controlled by Intel chips.

The Santa Clara-based company is building a kit that carmakers can eventually plug into their products, potentially saving the motor industry from the effort of developing it themselves. Not to mention the R&D cost; why devote billions to creating something when you can buy an off-the-shelf solution and tailor it to your needs?

Eran Sandhaus, vice-president of software and services for Delphi, says the company’s autonomous driving kit should be ready by 2019, and will cost “thousands of dollars”.

BMW, which is also partnering with Intel, has a more modest target. The iNext, its first fully self-driving car will go on sale in 2021. Meanwhile, it is putting 40 prototypes on the road to figure out how best to integrate the technology with its cars’ basic architecture.

While it’s obviously early days in the race to autonomy, a potentially huge prize waits at the finish line. Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, estimates that the market for autonomous cars could be worth US$96 billion (S$135 billion) a year by 2025, and US$290 billion by 2035.

Until then, it almost seems like the cars themselves will be the easy part. Intel says an autonomous vehicle will generate four terabytes of data a day — and you thought your monthly 6GB cellphone plan was plenty.

Making sense of that digital tsunami is going to take serious computing power, says Jack Weast (below), the chief system architect for Intel’s autonomous driving division. “We see this as a data challenge,” he says.

Not all of the computing power has to be in the cars themselves, he says. Once a 5G mobile network is up and running here, it’s data centres that will keep autonomous cars running properly. “If you connect to the cloud, you can download high-definition map information, for example,” says Weast. That ensures the cars would never be confused by the sudden appearance of a new road.

Connected autonomous cars could also effectively talk, keeping up a constant flow of digital chatter that would warn them about road hazards long before a human driver would encounter them.

They could avoid jams, or drive in ultra-close formation to cut fuel consumption by as much as 15 percent by sharing their wind resistance.

Intel’s Weast predicts a huge drop in traffic injury or fatality once autonomous cars become the norm, along with a corresponding fall in insurance costs. The elderly and the very young would gain mobility, and an enormous amount of land could be reclaimed from today’s parking lots, he says.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to be very, very valuable to society at large,” he says.

To what extent that comes to pass, and how soon the kind of driverless future imagined by Weast and other engineers comes to fruition remain to be seen.

But given how much computing power is going to be needed to pull it off, one thing seems certain: there’s a high chance that whichever carmakers end up leading the autonomous race, their cars will have an Intel inside.

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