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Published: 14 June 2023

Snapshot of Singapore’s Bus Market as Seen by Volvo Buses

Any major metropolis depends on public transport systems as the arteries that move the most important component of the city: us, people. In recent rankings, TimeOut puts Singapore’s public transport system at the sixth spot while Far & Wide sees the city state leading in their May 2023 ranking. Land transport in the form of buses is a key component in the public transport ecosystem and in this exclusive interview, Mats Nilsson, Vice President of Volvo Buses Asia Pacific sheds light on how Volvo Buses contributes to the continued success and popularity of this mode of transport.

Currently, around 5 800 buses form the backbone of the public transport system in Singapore with another 6 000 on the private site. Some of these are held in reserve as contingencies when other modes of transport fail, or for servicing. However, the majority of these vehicles is actively deployed every day. “Overall, I think these buses are very well utilized. I would not think that there are too many buses currently here in Singapore,” Nilsson said. About 80 percent of the buses being in use at any given time. This comes to no surprise as Singapore is currently aiming to become “car-lite”, as reflected in recent hikes of the cost for a COE (Certificate of Entitlement, required to purchase a motor vehicle). “In principle, for any major city, the approach should be more buses, not less.”

To support this ambition to put even more emphasis on public transport, moving people away from personal vehicles, Singapore aims to have four to five more bus depots in operation by 2030 across the island. In doing so, the network is going to be better suited to move the masses while maintaining the current number of buses. In tandem, the MRT (Mass Rail Transit System) will also be expanded. Although, this would add capacity to the train network, Nilsson expects that there will be more buses needed as the MRT needs to be attached to a well working last mile transport operation. “With this, we will have a safe and clean transport system where people are going to move away from personal vehicles.” The idea is to be complimentary, not in competition with other modes of transport.

“In principle, for any major city, the approach should be more busses, not less,” Mats Nilsson, Vice President of Volvo Buses Asia Pacific

Nilsson stressed that a holistic approach is needed when looking at the implementation of any transportation system. Just having some bus lanes in certain parts of the city is not going to have the desired effect as he can relate from personal experience. “Interestingly, in Singapore, there are very few articulated buses on the road. There are some, but these are likely to be phased out.” Singapore is a city that is built more vertical than horizontal in its expanse; thus double-decker buses are favoured as the urban-scape is defined by the fact that Singapore is an Island.

The types of vehicles used is part of the continuous learning that Singapore applies in a bid to become a smarter city. The integration of public transport models is crucial when it comes to the success of the systems. “When integrated properly, then each mode of transportation contributes positively to the overall system,” Nilsson explained.

“The next big step we are going to take is the implementation of electric buses,” he stated. Currently, a limited number of Volvo hybrid buses are deployed, running on electric mode at about 25 percent of the time. Now, Singapore is trialling fully electric buses, of which they have purchased 60 from various suppliers. One positive effect of electrified transport is already evident as passengers commented positively on the fact that these buses would be silent and not belch out smoke when stopping to let passengers get on and off. A tender for several hundred fully electric buses has been issued and Volvo Buses is confident that Singapore will pick their offering for this large-scale test of this new technology. “Singapore’s target is to have 50 percent of their fleet of 5 800 buses to be fully electric by 2030 and by 2040 100 percent.”

Besides Singapore, Australia is going ahead with the electrification of public transport at rapid speeds while being key markets for Volvo Buses. Nilsson anticipates that Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia to be the next countries that will be heavily investing into electromobility. A peculiarity of Singapore is that there is only one body or organisation that is tasked with the running of the public transport in the entire country. Another unique feature of Singapore’s buses is that many are now equipped with three doors, making them more efficient at stops. With less density in other countries, the extra seconds saved using three doors may not be such a factor.

Currently, Singapore will have to deal with a mixed fleet, comprised of ICE (Internal Combustion Engines) and the newly introduced fully electric buses. With a permitted life span of 17 years, the current ICE-powered Volvo buses will soon all be phased out as the last purchase has been a few years back. In order to support the ambition to go fully electric, charging infrastructure needs to be put in place and currently, separate tenders are out to invite bidders to tender for this package of the infrastructure. “It is indeed a challenge to secure enough electricity and enough charging stations, however, we are moving in the right direction.” Bus bodybuilders, OEMs and the providers of charging infrastructure are being asked to work closely together to ensure that the systems are being implemented smoothly and using charging facilities that can be used by all brands.

New technologies require new thinking and Nilsson is eagerly looking at the implementation of the 3Rs in connection with batteries needed for electric vehicles. As batteries will go through three lives, the 3 Rs stand for Refurbish, Remanufacture and Repurpose and finally Recycle.  Here, the size of the island state and the support framework provided by the Singaporean government will allow Volvo Bus to rapidly learn and gain experience in this area. “This can be significant knowledge that we can gain here, and we need to share this.” Hailing from Sweden, he draws parallels as his home country has also been one that became successful by sharing knowledge. He cautioned though that one should not become too confident as the insights gained in one country may not be applicable to their full extend in other places.

Other trends Nilsson is also observing is that in parallel to the electrification of the public transport system, autonomous vehicles are also being developed and tested, albeit a slower pace. In addition, considerations are given to Hydrogen as a source of power for vehicles. “With the end of the pandemic, we are now also seeing tourists coming back and the local population travelling more again.” Travel between Singapore and Malaysia has also resumed, increasing the need for capacity yet again. Nilsson speculated that a lot of it could be “Revenge Travel” in addition to events and conference now being back at their previous levels.

Other trends Nilsson is also observing is that in parallel to the electrification of the public transport system, autonomous vehicles are also being developed and tested, albeit a slower pace.

Volvo Bus is also back on track when it comes to delivery times as the supply chain issues during the pandemic have been resolved. Naturally, there may always be some bottlenecks with certain parts, however, Volvo Buses is approaching the issue by localising as much content of their products as possible to become less dependent on imported components. According to Nilsson, Volvo Buses evaluates localisation by evaluating where there is a sufficiently large bus market or where one can find quality components. Nilsson explained that “Right now, the localisation is driven by the buyers, who are demanding that there is larger amount of localised content is part of the overall offering.” In Australia, individual states are even expecting that localised content is sourced not just from the country, but the specific state.

In this context, Volvo Buses is also looking at human resources, i.e. local talent that will be involved in the creation, production and servicing of the vehicles. In this case, the “glocal” approach of hiring local staff for a MNC is a manifestation of this. Nilsson points out that Singapore has been very supportive of this approach, right down to financing of projects, especially during the recovery. Again, it is the holistic approach that one would have to take in order to make an ecosystem work flawless, as Nilsson points out.