Self-driving trucks will soon haul cargo between shipping terminals in Singapore

Much to be automated.
Much to be automated.
Image: EPA/Stephen Morrison
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Singapore’s shipping ports are already among the busiest and most efficient in the world. Now the city-state is exploring a new way to make them run even better: convoys of driverless trucks operating between terminals. The idea is that a lead truck will be driven by a human, with the follower vehicles being automated.

This week, authorities signed agreements (pdf) with two truck makers with strong track records in self-driving technology— Sweden’s Scania and Japan’s Toyota Tsusho—to work on the project. In the first phase, lasting about a year and starting this month, each company will design, develop, and test a truck platooning system in their respective countries. In the second, one company will be chosen for local trials on a 10 km (6.2 miles) stretch of Singapore’s West Coast Highway, hauling cargo between the Brani and Pasir Panjang terminals.

With the transport ministry and port authority teaming up on the project, Singapore authorities made the request for proposals back in October 2015. They noted at the time:

Autonomous truck platooning technology, which comprises one human-driven truck with one or more driverless trucks following behind, will help alleviate the shortage of manpower in the trucking industry and raise productivity with more cargo transported per driver. By shifting more haulage activities to off-peak hours, this can also help improve traffic flow during peak periods.

The companies will also work to “fully automate the processes for precise docking and undocking of cargo,” according to the agencies.

For the human drivers selected for the project, it will mean gaining valuable experience in a promising new area. Not many drivers are well versed in leading a series of automated trucks down a highway. Others, of course, will view the project with trepidation, fearing what it might mean for the future of truck-driving as a profession.

There’s little surprise in Singapore showing a strong interest in the idea. The tightly controlled city-state has long been a leader in creating highly managed driving environments. In 1998 it became the first country to manage traffic via electronic road pricing, and last August it was the first to offer self-driving taxis, beating Uber to the punch.