Revving Up Taiwan’s Autonomous Vehicle Development

Turing Drive’s late-night driverless bus trial on Taipei’s Xinyi Road. Photo: Turing Drive

With a focus on driverless public transportation, the government and local industries have been collaborating to put more AVs on the road, using extensive testing to ensure safety.

Driverless cars have proven harder to make than many people initially thought. Fully autonomous vehicles (AVs), which require zero human attention and don’t even have steering wheels, are undergoing testing in the U.S. and other parts of the world, but are still years away. Their development has been driven by startups, venture capitalists, and dreamers.

The challenges are not just technological. Regulatory changes are needed, as is the upgrading of road infrastructure so that driverless vehicles can “read” road signs and traffic lights. Some companies have approached these obstacles by developing highly automated cars that can operate in limited areas at low speeds and be overridden by a human driver. However, persuading the public to buy AVs will also be a huge challenge.

While developers in North America have tended to focus on automating private transportation, startups in Taiwan have focused on driverless buses. Taiwan has a small land area, densely packed population, and a complex road environment – millions of motorcycles and scooters travel alongside other vehicles – so it makes sense to link AVs to its well-developed public transportation system.

Xindian-based 7StarLake launched Taiwan’s first autonomous bus in 2017 and has conducted autonomous vehicle trial projects with six local governments. Founder and CEO Martin Ting says his vision three or four years ago was of a Taiwan with thousands of self-driving cars, but he realized that people had concerns about giving up control of their car to a computer. It would also take time to build up ways for vehicles to communicate with one another and to install enough sensors on traffic lights and other road infrastructure necessary for safe autonomous driving.

Ting says that shuttle buses for six to 10 passengers that run in limited areas – for example, serving public transport hubs like metro stations – is a more realistic goal. The technology is also more appropriate for use at slow speeds, he says.

This month, a self-driving bus service opens to the public in Tamsui. While only a short 600-meter ride between a light rail station and a nearby department store, it nevertheless marks a milestone in Taiwan’s AV development. It is the first autonomous bus in Taiwan to incorporate cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technology, allowing it to communicate with roadside detectors, an online monitoring network, and other vehicles, according to Chunghwa Telecom, one of the developers.

The bus will run for several weeks in a dedicated lane, which will afterward be opened to other vehicles, says Chunghwa spokeswoman Angela Tsai. The whole project is a “sandbox trial,” which may continue into next year, she says, adding that passengers can take the short trip for free, but still have to swipe their travel cards so data can be collected.

The project, undertaken by state-owned Chunghwa, its subsidiary Kingwaytek Technology, and the Tamsui Bus Co., was commissioned by New Taipei City’s transport bureau and supported by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. It aims to test not just the vehicle, but also V2X and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, as well as how they all work together.

It is the latest in a string of trials of driverless buses in Taiwan. Since 2017, startups, universities, state-owned companies, and as many as 10 local governments have worked together to test driverless shuttles in cities, campuses, and tourist areas. They see autonomous buses as ideal add-ons to the public transportation network, taking passengers the “last mile” from train stations or other hubs to their homes or offices.

But most public transportation systems around the world depend on government subsidies to run. With no way of making money from driverless bus services in the short- or medium-term, startups are changing course to develop smaller autonomous vehicles that can solve problems for industry.

“After two years of testing autonomous buses, I realized it’s very difficult to make money,” says Ting of 7StarLake, which does AV software and integration. Now his company sees more money-making potential in transporting goods rather than passengers, and is targeting private operations such as shopping centers, theme parks, and university campuses.

Ting said transporting goods as a business idea may seem less exciting than transporting people. However, he noted that as a business owner, figuring out “how to make money and how to support a company’s long-term operations and achieve a final goal are more important” considerations than what’s most in vogue.

Last year, 7StarLake tested a driverless vending machine at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan. Over three days, it transported coffee from 7-Eleven around the campus. Companies such as Renault and Toyota have also developed autonomous vehicles around a similar delivery concept.

In the future, 7StarLake will still work on passenger buses, but concentrate its efforts on transporting goods and building V2V and V2X technologies.

7StarLake’s test ride project on the National Cheng Kung University campus. Photo: 7StarLake

Exploiting strengths

Taiwan appears well-placed to develop driverless vehicles because of its experience making high-quality components for electronic devices as well as parts for the automotive industry. Richard Hsu, a manager at KPMG Taiwan’s green energy and smart city infrastructure advisory service, says that Taiwan could become “a small but powerful partner” by producing key components.

Hsu says it would be difficult for Taiwan to create an autonomous vehicle industry itself because of the need for advanced artificial intelligence technologies and lidar sensors, and it is unable to gain access to some AI technologies from the U.S., France, and Germany because of export bans. Regardless, Taiwanese companies can make parts for autonomous vehicles, such as the body, braking system, battery, powertrain, and lamps, he says.

If global manufacturers “collaborate with these value chains in Taiwan, they can immediately become very powerful because they can be very flexible and quickly react to the market,” Hsu notes.

KPMG produces a yearly Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, which assesses countries’ preparedness for driverless vehicles in terms of policy and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance. Taiwan was added to the index for the first time this year, and came in at 13th place out of 30.

Leading the index was Singapore, which expanded its autonomous vehicle testing area last year to cover 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) – or one-tenth – of its public roads. Like Taiwan, Singapore has a small land area and a packed-in population, and is focused on developing AVs for public transport rather than private car ownership.

The report suggested Taiwan could become a testing ground for companies that want to sell AVs in other Asian nations that also have a lot of motorcycles on the roads, and that Taiwan’s advantage in vehicle parts could help in converting existing vehicles to autonomous operation, a lower-cost option that may be attractive for developing countries.

Taiwan’s government has encouraged the fledgling autonomous vehicle industry by passing the Unmanned Vehicles Technology Innovative Experimentation Act in December 2018. The law freed companies and researchers from previous regulations, allowing them to apply to test unmanned vehicles on the roads.

“One thing unique about Taiwan’s autonomous vehicles is that the government has been very proactive in developing a legal infrastructure for the ease of private companies to develop and test their autonomous driving,” says Daegal Leung, a Hong Kong-based senior analyst at Euromonitor International, a market research provider.

In February last year, President Tsai Ing-wen opened Taiwan CAR Lab, a 1.75-hectare testing and research site in Tainan. It simulates real-world traffic conditions, allowing companies to test vehicles in tunnels, on roundabouts and at intersections, and alongside pedestrian and cyclist dummies. It aims to help Taiwanese companies to better compete with global leaders and to test equipment for future supply chains.  

The government is focused on promoting the smart transportation technology industry, which includes autonomous vehicles. Over the next five years, the government plans to invest US$200 million on smart transportation infrastructure, Lee Guann-jyh, deputy director general of the Bureau of Foreign Trade, told a June press conference.

“It’s great that the government is really enthusiastic and passionate and does a lot of investment in this,” says Hsu of KPMG. “On the other hand, that means some private companies are still waiting to see if it’s really a true market,” and questioning whether it’s worthwhile to get involved.

While government assistance provides momentum, AV developers “need to prove that they are commercially viable,” says Hsu. “If they cannot pass the test, I don’t think they will succeed, at least not in the near future.”

New Taipei City-based Turing Drive Inc. has been developing autonomous buses since it was founded two years ago, but now sees a better future in slow-speed special purpose vehicles (SPVs) like golf carts, agricultural machines, tunnel inspectors, and street sweepers, says executive director Stephen Liu.

“We expect to mass produce some of these vehicles from next year,” he says. “Our focus is on SPVs for the foreseeable future. We cannot focus on something that’s up in the air.” Liu says he is “very optimistic” about SPVs.

“Undoubtedly, there are needs for automation in hundreds of industries,” Liu says. “I’m not saying we simply want to replace human beings with machines. I’m saying that with autonomous driving technologies we can do things more efficiently and more safely,” such as autonomous street sweepers that can keep working when people are tired.

Turing isn’t leaving buses totally behind, however. The company has been running night-time trials of a driverless bus along Taipei’s Xinyi Road since July. The 12-seater bus, with a maximum capacity of 34, will open to the public from this month if it meets the approval of regulators from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Taipei city government, which provides the lane.

Given that the bus runs from 12:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., it is not expected to attract a lot of riders, Liu says. It crawls west from the bar area around Taipei 101 to the roundabout in front of the Presidential Office, taking 90 minutes to travel a 12-kilometer round trip.

Later this year, Turing will go a step further in AV testing by putting a bus on the open road – albeit at off-peak hours and at speeds of no more than 20 kilometers per hour. The Taoyuan city government has commissioned Turing to test a bus in a residential neighborhood around Linghang Station, one metro stop away from the Taoyuan High Speed Rail station. 

Looking further ahead, Liu says that if Turing gets more support from the government, it could run additional routes – and possibly even an autonomous light rail.

“There is a rather novel concept, not just in Taiwan but also around the world, that autonomous vehicles can probably take over some types of railway transportation,” he says. “If it happens it would definitely reduce the cost of construction and time for deployment compared to traditional railways where it takes years to procure the land.”

For now, developers are optimistic about the future of autonomous vehicles ferrying goods and passengers in limited settings. AV-filled open roads are still the stuff of dreams, but those dreams got the industry this far.