Greening Singapore’s roads with electric vehicles

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Mr Lam Wee Shann, Chief Innovation & Transport Technology Officer, Land Transport Authority.

Economists have a phrase - ‘bounded rationality’ - that explains the problem of human nature. Essentially, we can only absorb so much bad news at one go, so it’s tough for us to adapt to pressing problems.

Climate change is the ultimate bad news, but it’s incredibly complex to resolve. Everything from economics to global travel patterns must change to ensure that our nations can survive and thrive.

Earlier this year, Singapore’s budget set out an ambitious vision to halve carbon emissions from its 2030 peak by 2050. Transport is a crucial part of this vision. “Given the millions of daily trips made in land transport, the system is one of the largest contributors to Singapore’s carbon emissions,” says Mr Lam Wee Shann, Chief Innovation & Transport Technology Officer at Land Transport Authority (LTA).

Singapore’s EV plan

The government will focus efforts on greening the public transport system. “Mass public transport is by far the most energy-efficient people-mover,” Lam shares, as most peak-hour journeys happen on buses and trains. Greening this system will have a massive impact on reducing emissions from land transport.

By 2040, all of Singapore’s public buses will run on cleaner energy, and the country is on track to reaching this target, he says. The agency introduced hybrid diesel buses last year, and has started using fully electric buses this year. From now on, LTA will only purchase cleaner energy buses. “New bus depots will be designed to support electric buses,” Lam adds.

As for taxis, all taxi companies in Singapore will switch completely to cleaner energy vehicles by 2040, says Lam. One taxi company is already using electric taxis exclusively, while Grab has started giving rides in electric vehicles. Such systems can maximise the use of electric vehicles while lowering operating costs, Lam notes.

What needs to change for this to happen?

Singapore’s LTA intends to promote the use of electric vehicles, public transport alternatives, and greener methods of getting people from a to b.
This year’s Budget committed to phase out internal combustion engines, which run on petrol or diesel, by 2040. Electric vehicles run on batteries, producing a smaller carbon footprint.

As of 2019, only 0.14 per cent of Singapore’s vehicles were fully electric. This nationwide shift to electric vehicles will need “significant changes to supporting infrastructure and consumer behaviours,” says Lam. He lays down two important changes that need to happen.

First, Singapore will need to have more charging points for electric vehicles. It will build 28,000 charging points islandwide, with public car parks as the priority. The government will also work closely with the private sector to build more charging facilities in private car parks and privately-owned buildings.

Second, Singapore must prepare its national power grid for the vast increase in the number of charging points. The government is exploring smart charging tech and ways to store energy from the grid during off-peak periods. This will help to “better manage the additional load on our grid,” says Lam.

More needs to be done to understand how to manage the grid, Lam says. The government is looking into “the different factors that affect the demand for charging, and potential solutions to manage them,” he shares. Singapore is also involved in global discussions about EV charging system guidelines, to “ensure that our local standards remain aligned with the international front”, says Lam.

Autonomous buses

Singapore’s public transport won’t just be getting a green upgrade; the country is preparing for autonomous vehicles to better cater to transport demand.

Autonomous vehicles are still teething in Singapore, as indeed they are across the world, but they have huge potential. They provide “a greater variety of mobility options for commuters, including seniors, families with young children and persons with disability,” says Lam. They can even be “dynamically” dispatched to different areas as demand surges.

They make particular sense in land-scarce Singapore. “These cars will be constantly on the move, never taking up precious real estate by parking for lunch or waiting at the curbside for a next job. This will free up land for other purposes, especially in the crowded downtown areas,” according to Karen Tay, Singapore’s Smart Nation Director for North America, in a previous interview with GovInsider.

Singapore aims to deploy autonomous buses and shuttles across three residential and industrial towns in the early 2020s, says Lam. The pilot deployment will give insights on how to regulate the vehicles, how to tighten operations, and what infrastructure is needed to support the deployment at the fleet level.

LTA is also working with the industry to retrain public transport workers, such as bus drivers, to take on new roles in preparation for the pilot deployment.

While on the road for trials, LTA keeps an eye on all autonomous vehicles’ activities in real time. All autonomous vehicles in Singapore also have to pass strict safety tests before being allowed in designated trial areas. Last year, the agency worked with industry and other government agencies to publish a set of safety guidelines on how autonomous vehicles should interact with other vehicles or pedestrians and cybersecurity standards.
Singapore is propelling its transport system into the future with electric and autonomous vehicles. It’s a tough challenge for all of us, but they are breaking it down into manageable chunks to make it easier to achieve.

Images from Land Transport Authority, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore and Jacklee. - CC BY-SA 3.0