Taiwan's modest tests of driverless bus may hint at big things to come

A self-driving bus during a test run on Xinyi Road in downtown Taipei, Taiwan.
A self-driving bus during a test run on Xinyi Road in downtown Taipei, Taiwan. PHOTO: NYTIMES

TAIPEI (NYTIMES) - Rolling with a barely audible hum beneath banyan trees, a brightly painted shuttle bus cruised through a university campus here.

The electric vehicle crawled along at a speed of no more than 6 mph (10kmh). And only 12 passengers could fit inside. But the bus also drove itself, raising hopes in Taipei that autonomous public transportation would be up and running here within a year.

"The idea of one day being able to ride around this city in driverless vehicles is quite exciting," said Ms Amber Chen, who was riding with her son Ruey-She, eight.

The bus tests are partly to prove that the autonomous-driving technology is safe to deploy on the city's busy streets, and partly to gather the data needed to improve the artificial intelligence that steer such vehicles.

The effort, one of the earliest in Asia, could help position Taiwan as both a pioneer in autonomous public transportation and, if things go according to plan, a producer of driverless buses.

So far, the bus being tested, the EZ10, has breezed through its trials on the campus of National Taiwan University, which have been in progress since May.

But successful testing on a closed course at low speeds can only reveal so much about how the buses would fare in traffic. Getting them on the road at busy times is the next step, and the programme's backers are eager to see that happen quickly.

One obstacle: Despite active support from Taipei's municipal government and its mayor Ko Wen-je, the testing has only tacit approval from the central government, said Mr Lee Wei-bin, commissioner of Taipei's Department of Information Technology.

"The rest of the world isn't going to stop and wait for you just because you're sputtering along," he said.

Mr Martin Ting, the general manager of 7StarLake, the Taiwanese company testing the buses, said in an interview that the EZ10 was suited for three scenarios: closed campuses; short, fixed circuits; and city bus routes.

Such situations abound in Taiwan, which has 23.5 million people and is home to more than 150 universities and colleges, more than 100 industrial parks and 15 theme parks, as well as densely urbanised sections on its northern and western coasts.

In August, the EZ10 began late-night trials on a short stretch of Xinyi Road, a six-lane artery in downtown Taipei.

"Our ultimate goal is to autonomise the entire Xinyi Road main line," Dr Ko, the mayor, told local media when the trials started.

The EZ10 is built by French company EasyMile. It uses GPS and eight laser sensors to navigate predetermined routes. Front and rear cameras enable it to detect and avoid obstacles. At US$550,000 (S$747,571) a unit, including import taxes, it is nearly twice the price of a larger bus with a driver.

Mr Ting said he hoped to import three more buses next year and begin manufacturing them under a licence from EasyMile by the end of 2018, with the goal of getting half of the components from Taiwanese suppliers. That would eliminate the 45 per cent import tax, saving approximately US$200,000 per bus.

Then EasyMile could seriously consider other Asian markets, he said.

"After we've started supplying Taiwan, we're going to sell to Japan, Australia, China and South Asia," he said. "Australia already wants 100 vehicles and Japan has strong demand before the 2020 Olympic Games."

The EZ10, with a top speed of 25 mph, achieves Level 4 automation under the standards of the global engineering association SAE International, meaning its route is chosen by humans but there is no one behind the wheel and it can avoid obstacles on its own.

Tesla's Autopilot system is considered Level 2, although Mr Elon Musk, the company's chief executive, said this year that Tesla was only two years away from Level 5: complete autonomy.

For any level of vehicle autonomy to work, urban infrastructure must be updated. Traffic lights, for example, would require special signals to direct autonomous vehicles.

Then there is the issue of creating three-dimensional maps, and developing the computing power needed to use them for detection and navigation. In a dense, urban area like Taipei, they must account for the way tall buildings can distort GPS signals.

"You need to make a map with 99.999 per cent accuracy, which is not easy," Mr Ting said. "It takes time and money."

He added that processing all of the data would require cloud computing and a high-speed wireless connection.

Technological hurdles aside, national lawmakers in Taiwan have more important priorities than autonomous vehicles, including a contentious infrastructure package. And political concerns make many lawmakers cautious about embracing even an experimental system, knowing that any accident could derail long-term plans.

Nonetheless, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen has made creating "smart cities", which include technological innovations like autonomous vehicles, a national priority.

"It is time to use our strength in information and communication technology to bolster domestic development," Ms Tsai said at a smart city forum in Taipei in February.

Mr Jason Hsu, a legislator who visited Silicon Valley with Mr Ting, said that Taiwan could set itself apart, especially in Asia, by focusing on public transportation with Level 4 vehicles. Many countries in the region, including China, are involved in autonomous vehicle research and development, he noted.

"The US government is using autonomous vehicles to kick off a whole new industry centred around data-driven platforms," he said. "The issue in Taiwan is that our legislation is lagging behind."

Mr Hsu said he planned to introduce an alliance for smart mobility and autonomous vehicles this month that would help push the central government on the issue.

Unlike California, where dozens of companies have obtained permits to put autonomous vehicles on the road, Mr Hsu said that Taiwan had not licensed any companies, including 7StarLake.

"The cars are available but we cannot collect data, which is very dangerous as the vehicles need data and experience to fine tune their algorithms and minimise the chance of accident," he said.

Mr Lee of Taipei's Department of Information Technology said he hoped that Taiwan could turn driverless vehicles into a local industry. That might be enough to keep talented young Taiwanese from heading to China, where there are more opportunities at the moment, he said.

"Taiwan is democratic and free," he said. "It has its own advantages."