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Sell my car and use ‘robotaxis’?

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Let us embrace and capitalise on new technology instead of blindlyfalling for obsolete yet expensive solutions, writes Simon Tan.

For the past 10 years, I have hated using Rapid Penang buses.

My daily commute, door-to-door from Taman Free School to Gurney Tower, is a mere 20 minutes’ drive compared with 100 minutes on a Rapid Penang bus.

On top of that, I have had to endure the humid hot weather and negotiate dangerous walkways only to reach a poorly ventilated bus stop. (If you are lucky you may not need to change buses at Komtar or Bukit Jambul.)

Ask thousands of Penang drivers what they think of commuting by bus, and I bet you will hear similar grumbles.

We still face the same problems of frequency, transit connections (changing buses and trains) and last-mile connections with bus or inflexible rail-based systems, light rail transit and monorail.

Thirty years ago, Kuala Lumpur had a few choices. Today, it is stuck with its elevated light rail system.

Today, in Penang, SRS Consortium is proposing a 30-year-old solution at an outrageous RM8bn for a single 30km elevated light rail route.

Today, as well, we are at a crossroads of several innovations. Five years ago, we did not have Grab. Uber’s next game plan is to use robotaxis (driverless electric vehicles).

If Penang wants to lead, let’s plan, organise and integrate the following looming technologies: robotaxis, working in tandem with 5G, smartphone apps, digital wallets and robotaxis powered by sustainable solar-charging stations.

How much will these technologies cost? With economies of scale from nationwide implementation, it is estimated that for RM1bn, we can acquire 5,000 robotaxis at RM200,000 each.

Key in your destination into the robotaxi app, and the nearest shared robotaxi heading to your hub will pick you from your door at 50 sen per km.

If your trip is shorter than 3km, the robotaxi will drop you directly to your destination. For a longer ride, the robotaxi will drop you at the nearest bus stop along arterial routes.

Rapid Penang existing buses can then focus to serve arterial routes between the following hubs: Tanjung Tokong Tesco in the north-east of Penang Island, Komtar/ferry terminal in George Town, the state mosque in central Penang Island, Bukit Jambul in the south and Balik Pulau in the south-west.

The bus service could be at a 10-minute frequency, with fares at 30 sen per km as interpolated from the Rapid Penang fare chart.

Upon your arrival at your designated bus stop, your robotaxi will be waiting to take you to your destination.

This combination of robotaxis with Rapid Penang buses has the potential to convert a substantial number of private car users to public transport, hence reducing road congestion and travel times.

The robotaxi technology will satisify our need for door-to-door mobility. Hopefully cars, elevated light rail transit and the expensive six-lane Pan Island Link highway will be redundant.

How to embrace and integrate these innovations?

The Land Transport Authority of Singapore and a private firm are about to start trials of full-sized driverless electric buses at a university campus in the island republic.

The idea is that these self-driving buses will help to solve their search for bus drivers for a fleet of more than 6,000 buses.

Arizona has been testing Google’s Waymo robotaxis since 2017. Another car manufacturer is planning to launch a self-driving autonomous car in 2020.

Penang, the Silicon Island of the East, and Malaysian universities have the people skills and knowledge for systems integration and development of these innovations.

Malaysia desperately needs to improve its public transport system and optimise the billions that were spent on obsolete and low-coverage elevated light rail and mass rapid transit systems in Kuala Lumpur.

Hopefully, Penang can avoid spending more billions under its bloated “Penang Transport Master Plan”.

How fast can we implement these robotaxis? With political will, we can fully implement robotaxis within five years, less than the seven years to construct elevated light rail transit infrastructure, which is fast becoming – if not already – obsolete.

A suggested five-year plan:

  • Year 1 Planning, financing, public engagement, software development
  • Year 2 Trial run in a pilot area using mobile apps and Grab cars
  • Year 3 Testing of robotaxis in another pilot area with 5 G
  • Year 4 Trial run of robotaxis in several pilot areas
  • Year 5 Full roll-out of a combination of robotaxis and Rapid Penang buses

Unfortunately in Malaysia we have scant data on travel patterns. Rapid Penang only knows the travel patterns of the 5% of Penang population who are bus users. A transport expert familiar with the situation hopes that the coming national census in 2020 will capture the travel patterns of Malaysians.

Before investing RM8bn in an elevated light rail system, we need to ask ourselves: don’t we need this mobility data?

Fortunately, the robotaxi-bus combination is adaptable to changing travel patterns to help Penang achieve the national goal of a 40% public transport modal share.

As a nation, this project will provide sustainable mobility at a more affordable price (RM1bn versus RM8bn for a single elevated light rail route from Komtar to Penang airport).

The success of this project will leapfrog Penang’s mobility ahead of other medium-sized cities. We can then sell our systems to these cities.

Robotaxis and 5G are coming whether we like it or not. Let us embrace and capitalise on them instead of following blindly (without travel pattern data) and ‘developing’ an obsolete yet expensive solution.

Simon Tan, who recently attended an Aliran’s writers’ workshop with the theme Writing for Change in New Malaysia, hopes that an expert group can further develop this combo idea, as suggested by his sifu.

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