Anyone who has been to Thailand has most likely seen the streets filled with the iconic, loud, and colourful three-wheeled taxis known as tuk-tuks. The little vehicle has been a part of Thailand’s cityscape for decades, and now they are due for a cutting-edge makeover.
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, together with a major investor and support from the Thai government, will run the months-long trial inside a gated Bangkok community, with the hopes that what they learn can eventually be applied to bigger vehicles such as minibuses.
The majority of autonomous-driving research and development comes from places like China and Japan, with companies such as Toyota Motor Corp and Baidu Inc investing billions into software development, partnerships, and road tests. Southeast Asia itself does not have a local champion, despite a strong presence in automobile manufacturing. As such, Thailand seeks to become the trailblazer for the region, taking the opportunity to keep their auto-industry relevant.
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.
The new tuk-tuk design isn’t just your regular tuk-tuk either. The start-up that designed it went for a minimalist approach, 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.
Testing is being conducted in a gated community of 10,000 people owned by the investing firm’s parent, a property developer. This is due to city streets being too challenging to test at such an early stage of development.
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 vehicle, 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.