In Taiwan, Modest Test of Driverless Bus May Hint at Big Things to Come - The New York Times

TAIPEI, Taiwan — 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 six miles per hour. 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 Amber Chen, who was riding with her son Ruey-She, 8.

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 program’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 Wei-Bin Lee, 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.

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, 100-plus industrial parks and 15 theme parks, as well as densely urbanized 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 autonomize the entire Xinyi Road main line,” Mr. Ko, the mayor, told local media when the trials started.

The EZ10 is built by the 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 $550,000 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 license from EasyMile by the end of 2018, with the goal of getting half of the components from Taiwanese suppliers. That would eliminate the 45 percent import tax, saving approximately $200,000 per bus.

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