Singapore’s Car Lite vision, unveiled in 2015, is part of the country’s Sustainable Singapore Blueprint for a more liveable and sustainable home. Spread out over 15 years, the $1.5 billion plan aims to have the country reduce its reliance on the car and move towards more sustainable modes of transportation such as public transport, cycling, walking and car-sharing. A notable instance of a car-lite initiative is Car Free Sunday, which is a community initiative started in 2016 by various government agencies such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Land Transport Authority (LTA) and National Parks Board in order to promote a car-lite or car-free lifestyle through community engagement activities.
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The Singapore government has enacted multiple policies with the aim of realising the car-lite vision. Chief among these is zero growth rate of Singapore’s car population. According to the LTA, as of February 2018, Singapore’s vehicle growth rate has been reduced to zero from the previous 0.25% for all private passenger cars (Categories A and B) and motorcycles (Category D). The policy will be reviewed again in 2020 for any necessary adjustments.
The growth of the public transport network is another key policy. Singapore currently boasts a public transport mode share of 66%. The government targets a public transport mode share of 75% during peak hours by 2030, and is making significant investments to improve public transport infrastructure. The rail network is to be strengthened to achieve better standards of reliability, safety and efficiency. Additionally, to extend its reach to residential areas across the island, the rail network has been expanding steadily from 178km in 2014, and is targeted to hit 280km by 2020. This will be achieved through the completion of lines such as the Downtown Line and Thomson-East Coast Line. Looking further ahead, Singapore’s total rail network is to increase to about 360km by 2030.
The bus network is also undergoing improvements. While the rail network continues to be Singapore’s core land transport system, bus services are considered a complementary mode of travel which serves over 60% of commuters’ public transport trips. Initiatives like the Bus Service Enhancement Programme, and bigger and better bus hubs are part of bus network enhancements.
The car-lite vision also sees other transport options such as bicycles being promoted. Given Singapore’s compact and well-connected urban geography, cycling has been identified to have the potential to be a viable alternative transport mode for short distance commutes and first- and last-mile connections. Currently, cycling accounts for only 1% of all trips in Singapore. However, there has been a push for more commuter cycling via the building of more infrastructure and supporting facilities to make Singapore more cycling-friendly.
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Whither the Automotive Industry?
For sure, the Singapore authorities’ policies and initiatives on car growth, car pricing (COE), urban planning, parking space and promotion of other modes of transport affect the performance and prospects of the automotive industry, comprising segments such as new car dealers, long-term car rental, and vehicle leasing, in terms of sales.
However, it must be recognised that a car-lite Singapore is not the same as a car-less or car-free Singapore. What it means is a reduction of car volume and change in usage patterns. The automotive industry, which has long been a part of Singapore’s economy and society, is not going to go away overnight. Although the industry faces major challenges, it does so from a position of strength as there are close to a million vehicles on the roads and private vehicles account for more than one-third of transport modes.
The Way Forward
There are multiple options ahead for the automotive industry if it is willing to seize the initiative, adapt to changes and capitalise on new opportunities. Part of the current problem with motor vehicles is that they run on fossil fuels which are not sustainable and pollute the environment. Electric cars are an attractive alternative especially since electric car usage is in the very early stages in Singapore. According to the LTA, there are less than 300 electric and plug-in hybrid cars here, making up a tiny 0.05% of the car population. This presents a huge opportunity for the automotive industry – car retailers, car leasing and car servicing facilities – to continue to stay market relevant. Not only can the sales of electric vehicles be promoted, industry players can invest and develop expertise in supporting infrastructure for electric vehicles such as charging stations and aftersales support.
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A longer term and possibly bigger game changer will be the driverless car, or autonomous vehicle. Autonomous vehicles are now one of the most talked about products in the field of artificial intelligence. Technology giants Google, Tesla and Uber are already testing their fully automated vehicles, and smaller companies such as nuTonomy and Delphi are conducting pilot tests in Singapore. There are estimates that autonomous vehicle technology will be mature enough to be deployed widely in the next 10 to 15 years. The automotive industry can prepare itself to take advantage of this new phase of automotive usage. In an alternate scenario of a car-lite future, individual car ownership may dwindle to make way for autonomous car use as a service. Given the timeline of development for autonomous vehicles, the automotive industry has sufficient time to restructure its business model and capabilities to cater to this service concept.
Car sharing, a business model currently used by private hire car operators such as Grab, can progress to the next level by leveraging on advances in artificial intelligence, data analytics and driverless vehicles. This is a future concept of mobility that the automotive industry can take advantage of by offering products and services that are driven by emerging technologies.
In addition to adapting to technological trends, segments of the automotive business like car dealers and car rental companies need to diversify their offerings. For instance, a new car or car rental service can look to dealing in used cars given a large number of high-quality used cars that are traded in by drivers in Singapore. The aftersales segment (maintenance, accessories, modifications, etc.) is another means for the industry to stay viable. Even in a car-lite Singapore, the large number of existing cars will still need aftersales support as they age.
Finally, how automotive businesses brand themselves and sell their value proposition matters. Cars provide unmatched convenience for point-to-point mobility, something the public transport network cannot match, let alone beat. Public transport will never be the same as driving or taking a car in terms of speed, convenience, privacy and comfort. Furthermore, given Singapore’s demographics, cars will always be in demand to meet the needs of an ageing population for whom public transport may not be a suitable option. Cars will also appeal to families with young children. This bodes well for new car dealers, private hire rental companies, and companies providing car rental in Singapore. And regardless of age, the car is still an excellent way for a family to commute together and spend quality time together in a fast-paced country where time is precious.
Even though the automotive industry faces challenges with the advent of a car-lite Singapore, it should seize the opportunities mentioned above to create a new attitude towards cars: Not as mere status symbols, but a convenient, cost-effective, technologically-advanced, and environmentally-sustainable mobility option for the long-run.