SUTD students propose dual-purpose vehicle to ferry workers, tools safely

27 Sep 2021

Straits Times, 27 Sep 2021, SUTD students propose dual-purpose vehicle to ferry workers, tools safely
A group of engineering students has come up with a concept vehicle that takes a safe and cost-effective route to carry workers and equipment.

The six Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) students responded to a challenge by The Straits Times to curb accidents involving workers on the back of lorries.

There were at least three such cases in the last five months, resulting in two deaths and 30 injured workers. They add to a significant number of such accidents that have occurred over the past few decades.

For instance, in 2005, two workers died and 66 were injured. In 2007, 184 were hurt, while two others died. In 2009, one worker died and 77 were injured.

The concept vehicle, based on a 23-seater bus, has foldable seats with two-point seat belts and fasteners on the floorboard, where equipment and tools can be secured. It has rear doors with a deployable ramp for easy loading and unloading.

The six students - four pursuing a bachelor's degree in engineering product development, one studying for a Master of Science in technology entrepreneurship and one for a Master of Innovation by Design - took two weeks to come up with the concept, which was distilled from several preliminary proposals.

According to the team, the dual-purpose vehicle would address the constraint cited by industry players of the need to use another vehicle for equipment if they were to transport workers by bus.

Team lead Tan Kai Jie, 24, said the team's concept will "improve the safety of occupants while retaining a similar maximum load as a normal lorry".

The foldable seats create versatility, allowing more tools and equipment to be carried if there are fewer occupants. The floorboard of the vehicle employs multiple mounting points for securing goods and tools so that they do not pose a hazard.

Straps for fastening equipment can be removed and stowed away when not in use so as not to be a tripping hazard.

Mr Tan said a mid-sized front-engined bus like the Toyota Coaster would be suitable for conversion. He said the team did not consider full-sized buses because most workers are ferried in mid-sized lorries.

"Some of the bigger companies with more workers transport their workers with buses anyway," he added. "It is the smaller businesses which carry goods and passengers on the back of trucks, which is not safe at all."

The six are all members of the SUTD EV Club, "but most of us here are just automotive nerds... aside from being clean energy and sustainability designers and engineers", said Mr Tan.

One team member runs a classic car restoration business, and recently completed a project for his master's programme on a motorcycle sidecar which can lean as it rounds a corner.

Mr Tan added that the team considered an electric bus platform at the beginning, but "it would take time for combustion vehicles to be phased out".

"Human lives and safety can't wait," he stressed.

Also, the commonly available electric buses have crucial components installed in the rear, making it difficult to convert and implement a tailgate ramp, he said.

On the team's dual-purpose vehicle, Mr Tan added: "It'll be good if it can be a talking point, and hopefully pave the way for a safer solution for all."

Labour MP Desmond Choo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said: "It is employers' basic duty of care that workers go about their work safely. Concerns about costs and lack of manpower are understandable. Innovation and good ideas can bridge that gap.

"We need research institutions and entrepreneurs to work with the industry for big leaps in safety for our workers."

Mr Choo said SUTD's idea "deserves further evaluation because it works within the existing constraints and could be just as effective".

"Government must also be investors to catalyse such innovation," he added.

Singapore Contractors Association (Scal) executive director Louise Chua said: "While Scal is very supportive of innovative ideas, especially from passionate and young stewards of the future, the proposed modifications of the bus-lorry concept involve multi-dimensional considerations.

"Key stakeholders must also be involved, such as the regulators, manufacturers and related representatives."

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Melvin Yong is arranging to meet the SUTD students to discuss their proposal.

The other members of the team are Mr Nigel Gomes, Mr Jonathan Yim, Mr Akhil Jayadeep, Mr Matthew Dylan Wong Jian Xiong, and Mr Tan Lu Han.