[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he tech’s already there – it’s legislation, the supporting framework and regulation that are the next barriers. Such is the sentiment from automakers regarding self-driving technology going mainstream.

A huge step forward was made yesterday, then, when the Land Transport Authority (LTA) inked deals with UK-based Delphi Automotive Systems and local start-up nuTonomy that will make self-driving vehicle (SDV) services a reality. Driverless taxis from both firms are set to hit the ground as early as 2018, taking passengers on short trips on demand.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo sitting in an Autonomous Vehicle, a modified Renault Zoe by nuTonomy.

The LTA and JTC yesterday also launched an SDV research centre and a circuit, where driverless vehicles can be tested under traffic conditions. The circuit will be open to industry players to develop their own offerings, with an eye on the future.

(RELATED: For its driverless vehicles, Google patented “human flypaper” that could save your life in the event of a crash.)

“Although many countries and cities are testing self-driving vehicles, we have yet to see international standards and regulations suitable for large-scale deployment of SDVs,” said Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo.

The centre and circuit could help Singapore develop such standards and put SDVs on its roads, she said. “It’s also a significant step towards realising our vision of SDVs being used for first- and last-mile connectivity in our towns.”

In April, local transport operator SMRT and Netherlands-based 2getthere partnered up to form 2getthere Asia – an outfit to bring these automated vehicle systems into Singapore and the region.
 This is part of the Government’s push towards a car-lite Singapore, which will include driverless shuttles and pods filling in the first- and last-mile part of journeys – taking passengers to and from homes and MRT stations or to nearby amenities like malls.

“Hopefully, this will reduce reliance and demand for privately owned vehicles,” said LTA chief executive Chew Men Leong.

Also, at a time when it is hard to find bus captains and truck drivers, the concept could address manpower constraints, said Mr Chew at the signing ceremony for the agreement. And if self-driving freight and utility vehicles could ply the roads in the dead of night, there would be less congestion during waking hours.

(RELATED: Fatal Tesla crash – could Google Car’s tech have handled the situation differently?)

NuTonomy expects to have a limited commercial service by 2018 with up to 75 vehicles available in certain areas, with services rolled out islandwide by 2020.

The start-up, which has been testing driverless vehicles at one-north since April, said that it expects to use electric vehicles which can go for up to 150km before requiring a recharge.

“We expect it to be much cheaper than normal taxis,” said nuTonomy co-founder and chief technology officer Emilio Frazzoli.

Delphi services vice-president Glen W. De Vos said the firm now has six vehicles, but expects to have a fleet of 40 to 50 by 2022. He added that its service will have “competitive” fares.

Experts said driverless vehicle services will be a useful addition to Singapore’s transport system, but it will be a challenge to have them on such a scale in just a few years.

SIM University adjunct associate professor Park Byung Joon said currently, such vehicles have been tested only in areas with light traffic, and not on busy city streets.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng said safety is still a concern.

The original version of this article was first published in The Straits Times.