Exclusive: Exploring Volvo Bus Corporation’s autonomous, electric vehicle trials in Singapore

Håkan Agnevall, President of Volvo Bus Corporation, talks autonomous, electric vehicle trials in Asia’s innovative epicentre – Singapore

“It’s an exciting time for public transport. Already half of the world’s population live in cities, and it’s estimated that this will rise to roughly two thirds of people by 2060.

“When I’ve spoken with Singapore’s government officials about this, they’ve often pointed to the fact that 14 percent of the city-state’s surface is dedicated to roads. Singapore can’t afford to expand this, so instead it has to make the best use of its streets through a very strong focus on innovative, efficient transit systems.”

In the eyes of Håkan Agnevall, President of Volvo Bus Corporation (VBC), the heightening problems surrounding overpopulation has led to the public transport industry becoming one of the most forward-thinking, agile industries on the planet.

“There will be more progress in the commercial vehicle space in the next decade than there has been in the past 30 to 40 years,” he affirms. “That’s why I’m thrilled to be working in this position.

“We have formulated a purpose at VBC – we want to make a difference as a pioneer in sustainable transport solutions, currently ensuring that millions of people reach their travel destinations every day. We have an impact on society, on people’s lives and on the future of the world, and for me this purpose is truly inspirational.”

Propelling the potential

Having been in his current role since 2013, Agnevall is quick to admit that his own tenure has only witnessed a fraction of VBC’s extensive progress, much of which has stemmed from strategic studies undertaken in the mid-2000’s.

He reveals: “The company evaluated prospective potential of future industry trends in both inner-city transport and long-haul transport, with the research highlighting the power of electromobility.”

As such, VBC has been investing heavily in electric vehicle technologies for well over a decade, striving to substantially improve efficiencies, reduce emissions and eliminate noise pollution.

“Crucially, electromobility is fundamentally changing urban planning,” Agenvall states. “Nobody wants to have a bus stop outside their house due to the noise that the accompanying vehicles create during all hours of the day. Transit vehicles aren’t allowed to distribute goods at night in cities much for the same reason.

“Electric vehicles are changing this, however. Because they’re largely noise-free, you can bring public transport closer to the people, and due to the lack of emissions you can even bring it indoors – centrally within a shopping mall, for example.”

VBC’s own recently unveiled, flagship electric bus, the Volvo 7900 Electric, is embodying such potential. However, the company is equally looking to take this one step further with the combined introduction of autonomous vehicle tests in the 7900 Singapore trials.

“The autonomous journey is a complex one,” Agnevall affirms. “The development of these technologies is very much underway, but it will be quite some time until we have fully autonomous commercial city buses driving through high-profile areas like downtown Singapore. Its application is still very challenging.”

The evolution of automotive automation will come gradually in stages, encompassing everything from the building of capabilities in confined spaces to the introduction of driver support solutions and connectivity between vehicles and bus stops.

Once these capabilities have been polished, however, the benefits will be endless.

Agnevall continues: “If you look at depots, for example, much of the damage to buses happens in these facilities. What autonomous vehicles offer is the ability to both remove this and increase the depot’s operational efficiency, promising dramatic cost savings.”

Collective efforts

Getting to this stage, whether it’s a fully operational electric bus network or self-driving vehicles, will require many further strides in the way of innovation – strides that can be lengthened by collaboration.

Agnevall himself is a major advocate of proactive cooperation, something that VBC has already benefitted from via its fruitful regional partnerships with the city state’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in its 7900 tests.

“Volvo has developed a presence in Singapore over the course of almost 40 years, providing some 80 percent of the double decker buses that are in operation here,” he reveals. “We’ve got close working relationships with the state as a result, allowing us to have transparent, open and fast-moving discussions at finding solutions to potential issues on the roads.”

Infrastructural expansions will be a key focus of these collaborations, an element that has been a major concern for many regarding the success of both electric and autonomous vehicles.

“Singapore is a beacon of innovation,” Agnevall adds, “but we also selected it as the destination to trial the 7900 because the government is devoted to introducing, implementing and supporting technological drives and progressive policy changes.

“You can’t treat an electric bus as just a bus. Rather, it is the buses combined with the charging infrastructure that create the overall system. There is a full understanding of this in Singapore, whether it’s depot charging overnight or fast-charging on the line itself.”

Showcasing sustainable development

Three months on from the unveiling of the Volvo 7900 Electric, and substantial progress has been made.

VBC has introduced a second bus which is undergoing trials at a bus depot managed by local transport operator SMRT, accompanying the initial test vehicle based at NTU’s CETRAN comprehensive research centre.

And as continual headway is made, excitement similarly rises in terms of the technology’s vast potential.

“Electric buses have a multitude of competitive advantages over traditional vehicles,” Agnevall explains. “They’re less costly, faster to implement, and provide the opportunity to create much more efficient and effective rapid transit networks.”

Already positioned as a pioneer of cutting-edge vehicle technologies, Singapore stands to be one of the leading benefactors of such advancements in the eyes of Agnevall, maintaining its status as a smart nation that’s striding ahead of the global curve.

“Singapore will be one of leading countries in the world, but I think that Asia in general is very much interested in electromobility,” he states.

“The future of humanity depends on creating sustainable cities, and congestion, emissions and noise pollution are three key concerns that need to be addressed with that. Considering this, Singapore is a prime example when we talk about the right way forward, showing how we can collectively create sustainability in our cities for the future.”