THAILAND'S ubiquitous tuk-tuk, the noisy, colorful three-wheeled taxi that's been belching exhaust on local roads for almost a century, is getting a cutting-edge makeover to help carry the local car industry into the future.
Beginning in November, a public-private partnership will test the nation's first self-driving tuk-tuk in an effort to nudge Thailand towards the forefront of developing autonomous-vehicle technology in South-east Asia.
Startup Airovr, investor Siri Ventures and the Thai government will run the months-long trial inside a gated Bangkok community, hoping that what they learn can be transferred to bigger vehicles like minibuses.
Most autonomous-driving advancements in Asia come from Chinese and Japanese companies - such as Baidu Inc, Pony.ai and Toyota Motor Corp - spending billions of dollars on software development, partnerships and road tests.
South-east Asia doesn't have a local champion, so Thailand views the technology as a way to bolster - and keep relevant - an auto industry generating 12 per cent of its gross domestic product.
"The programme can build confidence among regulators and users that these vehicles can be used on public roads," said Ekkarut Viyanit, principal researcher for the government's National Science and Technology Development Agency. "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, said Amares Chumsai Na Ayudhya, founder of Bangkok-based Airovr.
But this isn't the usual ornate three-wheeler you see on the chaotic streets of Bangkok and other tourist spots in Thailand. The Airovr 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 Siri Ventures' parent, property developer Sansiri pcl.
But that doesn't mean the tuk-tuk will have an easy ride. The testing area covers about eight hectares and includes eight condominium towers, a mall, a dental hospital and a school. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians ply the streets.
"The tuk-tuk will allow us to gather data in a real environment with mixed traffic," said Jirapat Janjerdsak, Siri Ventures' chief technology officer. "After thousands of rides, we can analyse all of the feedback and information to scale up the project with bigger vehicles."
The trial could last as many as six months. Developers will analyse the data with the intention of scaling up the programme with its next-generation autonomous vehicles - 15-seat minibuses that Mr Ekkarut calls "shuttlepods". They will be manufactured by the government and a local automaker. Those could be ready for service by as early as 2021.
The end result may resemble the driverless shuttles cruising New York's Brooklyn Navy Yard, where four-passenger vehicles travel between the entrance and a new ferry dock.
In Detroit, startup May Mobility Inc runs a small fleet of six-seat robotaxis taking workers from a parking garage to their office. Thailand already is South-east 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, said Yossapong Laoonual, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Thailand.
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. "We're not starting from zero," Mr Amares said. "We already have an auto industry with big companies and a pool of talent, and that's an advantageous position."
Yet it won't be easy to move that technology outside the gates. Like many countries, Thailand doesn't have many regulations governing the use of self-driving vehicles on public roads.
A KPMG index measuring countries' level of preparedness for autonomous vehicles this year doesn't include Thailand in the top 25. Singapore ranks second, Japan 10th, South Korea 13th and China 20th.
The nation's development agency is working with at least six other offices, 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, Mr Ekkarut said.
The early adopters are expected to be operators of public fleets and ride-hailing services. GrabTaxi Holdings Pte Ltd, Thailand's main ride-sharing provider, plans to put robo-taxis on the road before 2022.
The service likely will launch in Singapore, where the company is based. There are about 1,000 test robo-taxis on roads worldwide today, according to BloombergNEF, but that fleet could expand to as many as 27 million vehicles by 2040. Sansiri's 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 programme then could be expanded throughout Bangkok and into other cities. "We're starting now to prepare for the technology that will change how we travel the last mile," Mr Jirapat said. "We hope to be part of a small force in making that happen in Thailand soon." BLOOMBERG