Japan Starts Self-Driving Taxi Trails in Tokyo

A start-up specializing in autonomous vehicle technology is partnering with a taxi operator to test self-driving taxis in Tokyo.

Self-driving taxis are ready to hit the streets of Japan in a trial run lasting through early September, thanks to a partnership between ZMP, a Tokyo-based developer of autonomous driving technology, and Hinomaru Kotsu. The demonstration experiment, using a RoboCar minivan that ZMP has developed with Hinomaru Kotsu as taxi operators, is allowed to run the automated-driving route linking the Otemachi Financial City Grand Cube and Roppongi Hills in Tokyo.

The two companies are conducting the test with the aim of providing practical applications of self-driving taxis in 2020 – they began collaborating in June 2017. Customers can schedule a taxi ride from a smartphone app. The company has built a system to monitor travel to remote areas and all vehicles are equipped with their own tablets that display route information.

Japan has big plans for self-driving vehicle services but the country is not alone in developing the technology. In the US, Waymo, the self-driving vehicle arm of Google parent company Alphabet, is already conducting autonomous-shuttle trials in Arizona. The company is also partnering with the Phoenix area’s regional public transportation authority, Valley Metro, to use autonomous vehicles to connect city residents with public buses and trains. Meanwhile, General Motors has been sending automated Cruise cars around San Francisco without passengers and May Mobility runs a shuttle bus across downtown Detroit.

A year ago, ZMP partnered with a taxi operator in the city as part of its plans to launch a self-driving taxi in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Earlier this year, Toyota entered into a partnership with JapanTaxi, Japanese telecommunications operator KDDI and consulting firm Accenture to begin trials on a taxi-dispatch support system using location-based big data gathered from smartphones.

Over time, it is expected the AI system will be able to learn from previous data sets to more accurately predict where taxis will be needed and when, while the tablets in the taxis will show drivers where occupied and unoccupied taxis will be located.

The number of foreign tourists is expected to rise steadily in advance of the Olympic games two years from now. Japanese transport minister Keiichi Ishii told the Straits Times the government was taking steps to accelerate the effort toward hitting 40 million visitors by 2020. At the games, Toyota plans to provide free movement to everyone, including those with impairments, employing sustainable energy based on hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). Some of the deployed vehicles will feature Highway Teammate, an automated driving-safety feature that allows hands-off driving on the highway and is rated for Level 2 automation. The company will also support the movement of official staff and athletes to and from events with a bevy of information applications and connected-vehicle platforms, such as Data Communication Modules connected to its Mobility Service Platform.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.

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