Driverless bus test in Taipei gets positive feedback

Taipei–A five-day driverless bus test conducted by the Taipei City government has received positive feedback from government officials, system developers and members of the public.

“The test has been a success, and we will soon be planning for the next stage of the trial, which will expand both the distance covered and time traveled,” Taipei Deputy Mayor Lin Chin-rong said after the first round of tests concluded Saturday.

The driverless bus, which ran between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. every day from Aug. 1-5 on a 463-meter-long closed-off section of the exclusive bus lane on Xinyi Road, was able to collect mapping data and demonstrate its ability to precisely detect environmental conditions, Lin said.

For instance, equipped with Lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors, which measure the distance to a target by illuminating it with a pulsed laser light, the vehicle was able to tell if it sensed a real movement or just a reflection from the glass of a bus stop, he said.

Lin said the next step is to run the bus along the entire Xinyi bus lane and conduct further experiments during the day to see how the bus adapts.

Eventually, the bus is expected to operate alongside regular buses to meet passenger demand at specific times, such as late at night or during rush hour, he said. But to reach that stage, more advanced infrastructure has to be introduced, said Lee Wei-bin, director of the city’s Department of Information Technology.

The city government will first apply for a specific frequency range from the National Communications Commission, which regulates the country’s development of the communications and information industry, Lee said.

The frequency will then be used as a channel for traffic lights to send signals to the smart bus, so the vehicle, besides reading conditions around it through embedded cameras, can receive confirmation of a stop signal from another source, he said.

“The goal is to have all driverless bus-related technology and infrastructure tested to see how it fits our streets within one year,” Lee said.

The vehicle used in the test was provided by France-based driverless shuttle manufacturer EasyMile.

Martin Ting, the president of 7Starlake Co., which represents EasyMile in Taiwan, said the market prospects for driverless buses in Taiwan are promising.

The project will allow the participation of local manufacturers, Ting said, and Taiwan is already capable of producing some key components of the vehicle, such as its IT panels, routers, motors, and battery management systems. He was optimistic that half of the vehicle’s components could be made in Taiwan within the next 12 to 18 months.

One technology not accessible to Taiwanese developers is the advanced Lidar sensor technology, but Ting said his company is working with local universities to experiment with other possibilities.

The successful test was not only a boost for the government and the industry but also an interesting experience for those willing to give the driverless shuttle a try.

“The autonomous vehicle was not as terrifying as I imagined,” said 22-year-old Wang Tsuang-wei, explaining that everything seemed under control during the short trip.

Ou Hsiu-chu, the head of the ward where the test took place, said she felt the system was safe enough but needed to see more evidence that the bus can react correctly to traffic lights – a variable that was not included in the five-day test.

Ou and her neighbors also said they were not sure if the new type of transportation will be well-received by the public, and whether the shuttle, which carries only 12 passengers, is really a practical solution to Taipei’s traffic problems.

“We are so used to forcing ourselves into the bus,” Ou said. “I don’t think people will remain orderly when getting into the bus, especially when there’s no driver inside.”

To Julia Simantecs, a 33-year-old Argentine, the innovative transportation option is worth a try for the city.

“I would love to take the driverless bus in whichever scenario I am thinking about taking a traditional bus,” he said. “Still, traveling at its current speed at about 10 kilometers per hour is too slow.”

With a price tag of NT$15 million (US$496,587), the driverless bus can travel at up to 40 kph and be able to react within 0.05 seconds once it gets fully adapted to the environment, Ting said.

Source: Overseas Community Affairs Council