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Feature

The silence of the trams: A professor’s take on NTU’s smart transportation

Smart transport solutions bring many benefits to NTU. On the other hand, they know where you’ve been, look weird, and remove organs when you least expect it, says Andrew Duffy, tongue-in-cheek

ILLUSTRATION: DEREK CHUA

I still have both my kidneys. But they’re working on it.

By “they”, I mean the drivers of the ninja-stealth death-attack machines that appear as silent as Batman behind me on the bouncy blue running track, their handlebars at kidney-swiping height. You know them as Jalan scooters. Silent, and lethal.

Silent, lethal and smart. The Jalan scooter knows where you’ve been. It knows your credit card number, your IC number, and where you started and finished your journey. How fast you went. And how much you weigh. This takes browser histories to new heights. It will soon be able to predict where you want to go. Silently. Remorselessly. Algorithmically.

The next step is smart buses. They, too, will know every detail of your trip. So when you arrive late to class with the time-worn excuse of “Sorry, Prof, but I had to wait a long time for the bus”, your prof will click on an app and say: “Class started at 9am, and you left Hall 7 at 9.13am, took Jalan scooter 191 for the 136 metres to the bus stop where you boarded Red Route bus driven by Jumali, which brought you a distance of 1.63 kilometres in four minutes and 33 seconds (362 metres/minute), which is slightly above average for Thursday mornings, given the current weather conditions. None of that matters except the part about you leaving for class 13 minutes after it started.”

Singapore’s first fully electric bus is also on campus. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know where it goes. All I know is that I turn around and it’s there, like a grounded sky whale, vast, mysterious and silent. Then, in a hushed surge of electric power, it’s gone. Knowing there are two tonnes of barely whispering steel and glass doing 40 kilometres/hour somewhere nearby instils alertness that will translate into more energised scholarship. Like having a couple of tigers roaming the campus would give NTU students a Darwinian advantage few other universities offer.

But the fleet of Volvos and Arma buses and Flash Shuttles will be looking out for us. A few months ago, I came home on campus to find a life-size mannequin clad in an orange jumpsuit lying outside my house. Half an hour later, it had apparently crawled across the road, like something from a Korean horror flick. It turned out to be an experiment to see if driverless buses would be able to detect people lying by the road. So, if you’re planning to get drunk on illicit Binjai Beer and collapse on the way home, make sure you’re dressed like an extra from Orange Is the New Black, and the smart buses will simply drive around you.

Another problem smart transport systems have been tackling is the “last mile” conundrum – that is, how to transport people the last mile from the nearest public transport to their homes. The ofo and Mobikes provide one solution, as well as revealing a startling fact: thousands of people don’t live in HDB and landed properties, but on grassy verges, under flyovers, by trees on the AYE, and in canals. Who knew? (By the way, rumours of a merger of ofo and Mobikes into Mofo will not happen. Can’t imagine why not.)

And yet, the biggest problem for smart transport isn’t technological. It’s style. Those two-wheelers with tiny seats on them that look like half an old person’s mobility scooter. Functional, for sure. Foldable, parkable, chargeable and portable, doubtless. But stylish? No. I challenge the coolest, edgiest, punkest student to ride one without looking like a total wombat.

So, smart transport is a mixed blessing, as I found when I arrived in Singapore and misread “SMRT transport” for “SMART transport”. I realised my mistake over the course of 20 minutes close to, but not actually in, Jurong East station.

Time to Jalan, or even jalan-jalan, instead.


Andrew Duffy is an Assistant Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information. He has previously worked for The New Paper and The Straits Times.