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Thailand to get self-driving tuk-tuks

Thailand’s ubiquitous tuk-tuks, the loud and colourful three-wheeled taxis, are due for a cutting-edge makeover to help push to local industry into the future.

Commencing in November 2019, a public-private partnership will test the nation’s first self-driving tuk-tuk in an effort to nudge Thailand toward the forefront of developing autonomous-vehicle technology in Southeast Asia.

A local start-up, a major investor and the Thai government will run the months-long trial inside a gated Bangkok community, hoping that what they learn can be transferred into bigger vehicles like minibuses.

Most autonomous-driving advancements in Asia come from Chinese and Japanese companies. Billions of dollars have been spent on software development, partnerships and road tests.

Southeast Asia does not have a local champion, so Thailand views the technology as a way to bolster – and keep relevant – an auto industry that generates 12 per cent of its gross domestic product.

Principal Researcher for the government’s National Science and Technology Development Agency stated that the program build confidence among regulators and users that these vehicles can be used on public roads. This will accelerate acceptance of the technology in Thailand.

The tuk-tuk was chosen as a test vehicle because the three-wheeler is more energy-efficient than a car, requires fewer parts, is cheaper and is more suitable for the country’s hot weather, the founder of the start-up stated.

However, the vehicle being tested isn’t your average ornate three-wheeler seen on the chaotic streets of Bangkok and other tourist spots in Thailand. The start-up’s model has a minimalist design, with screens depicting speed and how much electricity is in the tank.

The 3D mapping system on the roof resembles police sirens, and the interior has handlebars so the tester can take control if necessary.

Because city streets may be too challenging for early-stage AVs, tests will be done inside a gated community of 10,000 people owned by the investing firm’s parent, a property developer.

However, this doesn’t mean the terrain the tuk-tuk will be tested on is easy. The testing area covers roughly eight hectares (about 20 acres). It includes eight condominium towers, a mall, a dental hospital and a school. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians ply the streets.

The trial is expected to last as long as six months. Developers will analyse the data with the intention of scaling up the program with its next-generation autonomous vehicles – 15-seat minibuses that are being called “shuttlepods.”

These vehicles will be manufactured by the government and a local carmaker and could be ready for service as early as 2021.

Thailand already is Southeast Asia’s car production hub, making almost 2.2 million vehicles last year, and the government is trying to boost investment in EVs and AVs as the global industry moves in those directions.

Thailand was the first country in the region to offer incentives to EV manufacturers and to reduce taxes on sales of their cars.

Driverless vehicles will be built on EV platforms, and autonomous technology will supplement the competitiveness of EVs.

With total global sales of self-driving cars expected to reach 21 million units in 2035, according to IHS Markit, the country could become the region’s production hub.

Thailand already has an auto industry with big companies and a pool of talent; this is an advantageous position. However, it won’t be easy to move that technology outside the gates.

Like many countries, Thailand does not have many regulations governing the use of self-driving vehicles on public roads.

The nation’s development agency is working with at least six other officers, including the Department of Land Transport and the Department of Highways, to formulate plans for Thai roads.

The earliest Thailand could see AVs on public roads would be 2024. The early adopters are expected to be operators of public fleets and ride-hailing services.

Thailand’s main ride-sharing provider plans to put robotaxis on the road before 2022. There are about 1,000 test robotaxis on roads worldwide today; this fleet could expand to as many as 27 million vehicles by 2040.

The goal is to develop self-driving shuttles that can carry residents of its communities between their home and the nearest mall or train station. The program could be expanded throughout Bangkok and into other cities.

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