Singapore poised to reap the benefits of mobility

The Business Times by SEAN FITZGIBBON

DYSON'S announcement that it will build its electric car in Singapore highlights not only the city state's capabilities in research and development and advanced manufacturing but also underscores its role in the age of mobility we are now entering.

Notable advancements in technology, coupled with increasing urban populations and environmental challenges, are all combining to create this transformational shift in how we move between places.

The revolution in smart mobility is driven by four factors - the electrification of vehicles, driverless transport, ride sharing and connectivity. Each of these developments presents opportunities for Singapore to grow its economy for decades to come. It also presents a new investment universe for investors in this market.

For decades, limited battery technologies have posed a stumbling block to the development of efficient electric vehicles with sufficient range, performance and affordability to appeal to mass markets. While low speed, short range electric vehicles have existed since as far back as the early 1900s, high performance electric vehicles have, until recently, been seen as a futuristic fantasy.

With many governments committed to tackling air pollution and curbing C02 emissions, the electric vehicle and battery industries appear well placed to capitalise on change.

The race is now on to build battery packs that can compete on cost with the internal combustion engine. With lithium-ion battery packs currently selling at an average price of US$209 per kilowatt-hour, some experts predict a competitive breakthrough by 2025 when the cost is forecast to rival those of conventional engine technologies.

Sales of electric vehicles are predicted to increase from a record 1.1 million worldwide in 2017 to 11 million in 2025, surging to 30 million in 2030. While there has been limited take-up of electric vehicles in Singapore so far, this is likely to change as technology improves and the availability of charging facilities increases, such as ComfortDelGro's recent opening of a fast charger for electric cars.

Self-driving revolution

Another key strand of the mobility revolution is self-driving vehicles. Business giants, including Google, Tesla and Uber, are investing significant sums of money in making driverless vehicles a mainstream reality. This is not to say that the arena of self-driving cars has been free from setbacks - it hasn't. Both Tesla and Uber's self-driving systems, for example, have been under intense scrutiny after fatal accidents.

Despite these incidents, the wider picture is one of increasingly connected, road-aware vehicles that over the long term are likely to make a game-changing contribution to road safety. It is worth noting that of the over 35,000 US road fatalities in 2015, more than 90 per cent were attributed to human error. Arguably, many of these accidents could be avoided in the future thanks to advanced driver assistance systems, safety features and the benefits of machine learning in autopilot systems.

Some real progress is now being made towards the roll-out of driverless vehicles and ride-sharing systems. Automotive giant GM has announced plans to launch a commercial fleet of fully autonomous robo-taxis across some US towns and cities in 2019, for example.

Singapore-based ride-sharing company Grab has reportedly announced plans to launch self-driving taxis in South-east Asia before 2022, nominating Singapore as the most likely location to launch the initiative. Two years ago, Grab partnered with Singapore's nuTonomy, a company that develops software for self-driving cars. The two companies have tested self-driving cars.

Interlinked to driverless vehicles is vehicle connectivity, enabled by advances in technology. Even current levels of technology allow cars that are connected not just to the Internet and GPS but also pedestrians, other vehicles and infrastructure.

Think of it like the Internet of Things but on wheels. Imagine your car being aware of approaching emergency vehicles before you hear the sirens, knowing where to park or anticipating traffic light changes way ahead of reaching an intersection.

Imagine it automatically avoiding jaywalkers by sensing the proximity of their smartphone or automatically rerouting itself to avoid congestion. None of this is fanciful. The technology exists today - it's just a question of wider adoption.

The proliferation both of sensors and vehicle connectivity will likely have profound implications for the growth of data infrastructure in the coming years. According to one estimate, connected cars generate roughly 25GB of data per hour. That compares with just 869MB/hour to stream a high definition movie. Given the scale of technology and physical infrastructure upgrades required to support autonomous driving, the opportunities in areas such as data management, semiconductors, cloud computing and next-generation 5G communications are significant.

5G entering fray

Singapore is one of the leading locations in implementing networks that can enable the technology behind the mobility revolution. Singtel and Ericsson earlier this year announced Singapore's first 5G pilot network.

The connectivity 5G mobile Internet could offer holds the potential to revolutionise city life, bringing new intelligent efficiencies and innovations such as driverless taxis and smart grids designed to balance energy needs via sensors and other devices connected to the Internet of Things.

Through its edge in innovation, R&D capabilities, access to supply chains and ability to manufacture advanced goods, Singapore is in the box seat to capitalise on this age of mobility.

  • The writer is the lead portfolio manager of BNY Mellon Investment Management's Mobility Innovation Fund, which gives investors, including those in Singapore, exposure to companies located worldwide that are focused on innovation in transportation and related technologies.