Tech Vision: Eliminating borders at the causeway

  • Causeway, border-crossing issues threatening Malaysia-Singapore aspirations
  • Outside-the-box tech can lead to zero-human intervention and zero stress

Tech Vision: Eliminating borders at the causewayAFTER spending about 15 years in Singapore, I moved with my family to Nusajaya in the Iskandar Malaysia development hub in the southern Malaysian state of Johor, for a short stint in late 2013.
The move was to support the build-out of Frost & Sullivan’s operations in Iskandar. We had selected this location as a near-shore destination to Singapore to help us unlock new value for our regional and global clients.
Living in a border town like Nusajaya also meant that traffic at the causeway was the primary topic of discussion amongst residents, colleagues, and investors.
When I first moved in late 2013, I used to remark that this ‘border’ existed more in the minds of people than in the physical sense. Driving into Nusajaya, especially using the second link, was effortless.
A series of policy changes, growing investments in Iskandar by Singaporean investors, and the depreciating ringgit have all resulted in an increasing traffic flow across the check points in Tuas as well as Johor.
What used to be a 15-minute commute to cross the border now takes an average of 120 minutes during peak hours. The situation gets worse during holiday weekends.  During a recent extended holiday break in August, it took people about six hours to cross the border.
This is becoming an incredible wastage waste of time and will soon put paid to any aspirations for Iskandar Malaysia to become a thriving new economic engine of growth that can potentially support the needs of both nations, Malaysia and Singapore.
In continuing the conversation on emerging technologies, this week I will try to take a stab at how we could address this challenge in the near future.
The challenges:

Tech Vision: Eliminating borders at the causeway
  • Spike in traffic at peak times during working days, and during long holiday weekends in Singapore;
  • Two separate checkpoints for Immigration and Customs at both sides of the border, Singapore and Malaysia respectively. Vehicles and commuters have to queue up twice for the same process;
  • Physical limitation of space, constraining the ability to add more counters for vehicles to flow in during peak hours;
  • Difficulty in getting human resources to accept these jobs which are away from the hustle and bustle of city centre;
  • Inconvenient public transport infrastructure requiring commuters to physically alight at two different checkpoints for Immigration and Custom clearances; and
  • Large pool of workers from Malaysia who find the commute via motorbike the most economical way to reach their places of work spread across the island nation of Singapore.
Tech Vision: Eliminating borders at the causeway

We selected the following top five technologies that may be applied to address these challenges.  These five technologies are from the basket of top 50 technologies that are likely to see the biggest impact in terms of development and commercial application globally.
The technologies selected this week are:

  • Authentication technologies: Advances in biometric technologies are very encouraging.  The latest developments in two particular technology areas are
    • Iris-scanning: New mobile iris scanners are being developed that are capable of capturing facial images with dual iris views even within a distance of 18 inches. With built-in WiFi and USB connectivity, we could have mobile authentication solutions.
    • Touchless fingerprint recognition: Latest technologies allow for matching of fingerprints with the wave of a hand. This accelerates the authentication process in high traffic border locations.
  • Mobile robotics including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: This is the branch of robotics that demonstrates the ability to move about within their respective environments without any human intervention or control.
  • Imaging systems for Remote Threat Detection: Imaging systems which can detect terahertz lights from subjects as far away as 25 metres, and can analyse it to differentiate between biological tissues, ceramics, metals, etc. The system is similar to those used in advanced telescopic cameras.
  • Sensor fusion: Several sensors working across system architectures will assist with detection, tracking and classification of people and vehicles, automatically in real time. The systems can be deployed in a tower-based, mobile-based, or combination system architecture.
  • Predictive data analysis: The ability to use all the data gathered from the authentication systems to be able to predict traffic conditions, security risk and possible threat conditions.

I have tried to provide below two visionary scenarios that the above technologies could enable for us in the near future.
Robocops: Almost-zero human intervention
Tech Vision: Eliminating borders at the causewayImagine a scenario where we replace Immigration and Customs officers with robots, self-service authentication tools, and imaging systems.
We have done so in airports, and given the pace of innovation in new technologies, we may be able to realise this vision very soon in land border crossing.
In the best case scenario, travelling across the border should be as seamless as driving across any two streets within a country.
The key benefits of adopting this framework are:

  • We will never be constrained by the availability of human resources. We can have a fairly elastic capacity at all points in time. We will be able to deal with the sudden surges in traffic far more effectively.
  • The check-point authentication system can be mobile and need not be constrained by the physical limitation of the space available for the counters. Visualise mobile robots or drones flying to the car, assisting with the authentication and customs clearance as you are driving along.
  • Integration of touchless sensing/ fingerprint recognition can greatly enhance speed.
  • Authentication tools can be pre-fitted in public transport, eliminating the need for passengers to disembark for clearance purposes.
  • There will not be a requirement to have a checkpoint for each country. With a process which has zero-human intervention, there is no concern of trust of the individual officers or processes of each nation. The systems can feed information at the same time to authorities in both countries who will be remote but are able to prepare for any intervention as needed.  This will also reduce the duplication in the current expenditures by the two countries.
  • The use of predictive data algorithms will assist with simplification and enhancement of the systems over a period of time, both from a security as well as efficiency standpoint.

Stress-free border crossing

Tech Vision: Eliminating borders at the causeway

The biggest challenge today is the unpredictability for daily commuters on how long the border crossing will take. This results in people planning journeys way in advance, or being caught off-guard with the sudden surge in traffic.
When under extreme duress, we also tend to behave poorly and are more susceptible to not being considerate in our road manners. This further infuriates fellow passengers.
There are ample opportunities to integrate some simple technologies to take away the stress from this daily commute for many Malaysians and Singaporeans.

  • Ensure high availability of the camera application which shows the traffic at the checkpoints and along the entire length of the roads leading to the check points;
  • Integrate the information from the camera with predictive analytics, telling commuters how long it will take for them to complete their journey and providing recommendations on optimal travel times;
  • Provide adequate information on lane discipline and enforcement of penalties and fines for poor road manners;
  • Open up the data sets on traffic patterns, cameras, etc. to the community to feed the development of innovative applications;
  • It could even be possible for people to opt for pre-agreed commute times for their vehicles on designated lanes. A deposit or fee can be paid by the vehicle owners to ensure fair usage of the system; and
  • Provide options for the vehicles to turn around and return to their city of origin if they find that traffic is too excessive. This will also reduce the extremely long traffic jams that people have gotten into.

It will not be too far away when robots will authenticate travellers before they board the bus, screen for customs and dangerous goods, and facilitate the movement of passengers in the autonomous buses/ cars across the border in a very efficient manner, through the use of designated lanes.
I am more confident in technology innovations working faster to solve human challenges, than I am in government intervention.
Manoj Menon is senior partner and Asia Pacific managing director at Frost & Sullivan, and will be speaking at DNA’s inaugural What’s Next conference on Sept 29.
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