Thailand’s ubiquitous tuk-tuk, the noisy, colorful three-wheeled taxi that’s been belching exhaust on local roads for almost a century, is getting a cutting-edge makeover to help carry the local auto industry into the future.

Beginning in November, a public-private partnership will test the nation’s first self-driving tuk-tuk in an effort to nudge Thailand toward the forefront of developing autonomous-vehicle technology in Southeast Asia. Startup Airovr, investor Siri Ventures and the Thai government will run the months-long trial inside a gated Bangkok community, hoping that what they learn can be transferred into bigger vehicles like minibuses.

Most autonomous-driving advancements in Asia come from Chinese and Japanese companies –- such as Baidu Inc., and Toyota Motor Corp. -– spending billions of dollars on software development, partnerships and road tests. Southeast Asia doesn’t have a local champion, so Thailand views the technology as a way to bolster — and keep relevant –- an auto industry generating 12% of its gross domestic product.

“The program can build confidence among regulators and users that these vehicles can be used on public roads,” said Ekkarut Viyanit, principal researcher for the government’s National Science and Technology Development Agency. “This will accelerate acceptance of the technology in Thailand.”

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