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Environment

Could these driverless pods in Singapore be the future of travel?

SMRT

Some commuters in Singapore will be able to hop into driverless electric pods on streets by the end of the year to get where they need to go.

The pods (built by SMRT ) look like smart cars, but instead of having to man the wheel, these machines are autonomous. They drive on their own along designated routes. It’s estimated that the 24-car fleet in Singapore will be able to transport 8,000 people per hour, with around 6 passengers per trip.  

The cars aren’t fully traversing a city and they can’t deal with regular traffic, but they will be able to replace other forms of mass transit for people who fall within planned routes and suggest a more eco-friendly and safe template for travel.

Abu Dhabi uses versions of the pods in a business park and, for the time being, the pods seem designed for similar self-contained environments.

Ultimately, it seems like these vehicles will mostly be moving students or people who work in professional hubs, helping them peacefully get from building to building.

They won’t be acting as taxis for people outside the central commercial zones and they’re not going to be zipping down side streets at the outskirts of a city to pick up someone who missed the bus and is late for work.

It also seems unlikely that the system will be able to deal with the heavy flows of people that subways or buses absorb.

So it’s not exactly a game-changer--at least on this scale. But any amount of travel done without extra fossil fuel emissions is positive.

SMRT pod2.jpgImage: SMRT

For this system to truly make a difference, it would need thousands of pods or bigger pods that cover a much broader area--but that would take substantial investments and community cooperation.

But the model in Singapore is the 2nd time it’s ever been tried. The whole concept of autonomous, electric mass transit is in the early stages. In the years ahead the technology will continue to improve. Who knows--these vehicles could become widespread and popular across the world, effectively changing how people in cities commute.

The more likely future for autonomous vehicles, however, will be individually-owned road cars that can drive anywhere. Several companies--including Google and Mercedes--are close to creating autonomous vehicles that can adjust to the infinite variables that arise on the road without malfunctioning. The technology will be able to reduce emissions, accidents and time spent driving because it will be far more reactive to conditions (both immediately in front of a vehicle and in theory to broader traffic patterns) than human drivers.

Mass transit is fundamentally more eco-friendly than individual cars because it reduces the redundancy of travel. If a thousand people are traveling to the same destination, why not travel together and reduce overall emission?

And as far as mass transit goes, subways, train systems and buses will continue to be the most viable methods in the near term.

Making sure that they become even more eco-friendly will be the real challenge in the years to come--something that SMRT is already pioneering.