Hong Kong not ready for trial of driverless cars, government says, as Singapore aims for fully autonomous taxi fleet by 2018

Experts claim driverless taxis could replace cabbies in less than a decade, but government says hardware and software advancements likely needed first

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 8:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 8:04am

Driverless technology is not yet developed enough to justify the government facilitating a trial in Hong Kong, the Transport and Housing Bureau has told the Post, despite Singapore and the United States pushing ahead with testing self-driving cars, which critics say could replace cabbies in less than 10 years.

The bureau said it was aware of the use of driverless cabs in other places and would continue to keep a close eye on such technology, but was not yet ready to implement any trial in Hong Kong.

The government has been caught on the back foot as regional rival Singapore conducts the world’s first trial run of six driverless cabs, followed by another trial in the northeastern US city of Pittsburgh. The Lion City is expected to introduce a fully self-driving taxi fleet as soon as 2018, while carmaker Volvo has announced plans to launch a self-driving experiment in mainland China involving up to 100 cars.

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“As far as Hong Kong is concerned, the government keeps an open mind and will facilitate the trial and development of such technology subject to safety and legal considerations, which has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis,” a bureau spokeswoman said.

Driverless cars, run on electricity or as hybrids, are usually equipped with an autopilot computer system and cameras installed with a complex system of lasers to monitor the car’s surroundings.

But the bureau spokeswoman warned that most trials of the technology were only in the preliminary stages, and more thorough research, development and testing would be required to justify its adoption. It said it would facilitate a trial of the technology in Hong Kong if circumstances allowed.

“Hardware and software advancements are likely to be needed before such systems can be put into general use by the public, to achieve the long-term goal of utilisation of driverless vehicles in real traffic conditions,” she said.

Driverless cars may not be ready for the road, expert says

In October last year, after a visit to a technology firm in Israel, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said in his blog that Hong Kong could study the feasibility of equipping the city’s vehicles with autopilot systems to prevent traffic accidents. But he added the city had yet to reach a stage suitable for autonomous driving.

Wesley Wan Wai-hei, a member of the government’s Transport Advisory Committee, said he believed the world was undergoing a “revolution” in the transport industry which would be dominated by autopilot technology.

“I can foresee that Hong Kong’s taxi drivers will be replaced by this autopilot system within 10 years because driverless taxis will be an inevitable trend,” he said.

“This global trend will force the SAR government to put in place driverless taxis because automakers around the world will mainly produce autonomous vehicles. The government will have no choice by then.”

Many carmakers including Volvo, Tesla, Ford, General Motors and internet giant Google have jumped on the bandwagon of developing autonomous ride services.

Wan said he believed the technology would be applicable to most of the streets in Hong Kong except very busy districts such as Mong Kok.

A member of the Steering Committee on the Promotion of Electric Vehicles, Wan argued an autopilot system had many advantages over manual operation, including greater safety, cost-efficiency and less congestion. He believed driverless cars could greatly reduce traffic accidents involving human error, and their effectiveness would increase as more cars with the technology took to the roads.

“These cars are equipped with computer sensors which can detect near objects, enable communication with other autopilot cars and generate a reaction much faster than human reactions to avoid collisions,” he said.

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In 2014 there were 15,790 traffic accidents on Hong Kong roads involving injury, with a total of 19,854 casualties – down 1.86 per cent and 3.6 per cent on the figures for 2013.

According to analysis by the Road Safety Council, five human behaviours – driving inattentively, losing control of a vehicle, driving too close to a vehicle in front, careless lane changing, and swerving and stopping suddenly – were identified as top factors in traffic accidents concerning driver conduct.

Chau Kwok-keung, taxi firm owner and spokesman for the Anti-Taxi Franchises Concern Group, said if a driverless scheme were introduced in Hong Kong, he would be happy to purchase self-driving taxis as it would help mitigate the shortage of drivers in the industry as it grapples with an ageing workforce.

He said that not only taxi drivers but others such as truck and van drivers could be easily phased out in the future.

But at the same time he felt ambivalent about the technology. “This may lead to taxi drivers losing their jobs. This deplorable situation is not something we want to see,” he said. “It will create more social conflicts and also trigger a domino effect on the overall economy due to the massive unemployment of drivers.”