Driverless taxis, e-rickshaws: Asia travel gets futuristic

Tamil Nadu, India
JTB Photo | UIG | Getty Images

They're not using Marty McFly's DeLoreans yet, but Asia's consumer transportation industry is embracing new technologies at a fierce pace, with electric rickshaws and driverless taxis as the latest innovations.

Indian taxi-hailing service Ola announced on Tuesday that it would include electric rickshaws on its popular mobile app. Like other electric vehicles, the e-rickshaws are battery-powered and are purported to produce zero emissions, a major change from the smoke-wielding auto-rickshaws omnipresent in South Asia.

"With over 60 percent of the India's population residing in small towns across the country, the e-rickshaw initiative aims to strengthen mobility in these towns. Citizens in these cities and towns currently suffer from lack of convenient and reliable mobility options, especially for short distances," Ola said in a statement.

The announcement coincided with the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Stand-Up India" campaign—designed to promote entrepreneurship—with the 65-year-old leader ceremonially booking the first Ola e-rickshaw.

E-rickshaws have been on the Indian market for a few years but have yet to be incorporated into the country's sharing economy.

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Singapore's taxi industry, already under pressure from the popularity of apps such as Uber and Grab, is also set for a serious leap forward.

nuTonomy drew attention recently when it emerged that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spin-off was developing a fleet of driverless electric taxis.

The service aims to be "a more convenient form of public transit while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the densely populated city-state," according to an MIT release.

The driverless taxis will follow optimal paths for picking up and dropping off passengers to reduce traffic congestion and moreover, they could be cheaper than Uber and regular taxis, MIT said.

nuTonomy is in the process of getting approval for on-road testing and aims to deploy thousands of driverless taxis in the Lion City in a few years' time, noted nuTonomy co-founder and chief technology officer Emilio Frazzoli.

But analysts questioned how successful both transport developments would be, warning of key obstacles ahead.

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"Driverless taxis and e-rickshaws won't replace existing infrastructure anytime soon. Society isn't yet ready to move into that environment," Clement Teo, senior analyst at Forrester, told CNBC on Wednesday.

In India, for example, users need to be comfortable using a phone app for payment, he said. While smartphone penetration is booming in the fast-growing economy, cash remains king as a payment form, he said.

When it comes to driverless cars, their reliability in the case of accidents and insurance was unclear, he warned, adding that regulations still needed to be worked out.

"Both these technologies sound like a nice experiment but they are likely still far away from being full-fledged endeavors," Teo said.

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