Thailand’s ubiquitous tuk-tuk, the noisy, colourful 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 auto 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 toward the forefront of developing autonomous-vehicle technology in Southeast 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 into bigger vehicles like minibuses, Economic Times reported.
Jirapat Janjerdsak, chief technology officer of Siri Ventures, said to Bangkok Post, "We will likely see autonomous cars and air-taxi drones as disruptive trends in terms of lifestyles, making us safer and more convenient as well as enhancing the transport industry in the country.”
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.
Southeast 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% of its gross domestic product.
“The program 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 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 program with its next-generation autonomous vehicles -- 15-seat minibuses that 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.