Residents of Fujisawa will be ferried in driverless cars, which, if successful, could be used to transport spectators for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, writes The Guardian’s Justin McCurry about the launch of ZMP/DeNa’s new project. Robot Taxi is expected to intensify the global race to launch unmanned vehicles on to the consumer market. If the plans come to full fruition, dozens of people in Japan will be whisked to the local shops in driverless taxis from next year in an experiment with robot technology that could be fully commercial by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020.
From March 2016, the taxis will take about 50 residents of Fujisawa, a large coastal town near Tokyo, from their homes to supermarkets along the city’s main roads in journeys of about 3km. Robot Taxi, a collaboration between ZMP, a developer of automated vehicle technology, and mobile internet firm DeNa – is expected to intensify the global race, involving Google, Ford, BMW and other firms, to launch unmanned vehicles on to the consumer market.
While Japanese developers have faith in the car’s GPS, radar and stereovision cameras, attendants will sit in the driver’s seat during the journeys in case human intervention is needed, according to media reports. If the Fujisawa trials are successful, the cars could be used to ferry spectators around at the 2020 Games and in rural communities with little or no public transport.
As one of the fastest-ageing societies in the world, Japan is thought to be ideal for the introduction of self-driving vehicles, amid a rise in the number of accidents involving older drivers. The number of Japanese drivers aged 75 or older was 4.25 million in 2013, and is expected to exceed 5 million in three years.
Japan’s police agency says drivers aged 75 or older were responsible for 458 fatal road accidents in 2013, a rise of 20% over a decade.
Technological obstacles and safety concerns aside, Japan will also have to change road traffic laws requiring all vehicles to have drivers.
Officials in Fujisawa, which is aiming to become Japan’s first sustainable ‘smart town’ said the trial would be the first using the driverless vehicles on local roads, and with residents as passengers.
“This time, the robot taxi experiment will be conducted on actual city streets. I think this is quite amazing,” the governor of Kanagawa prefecture, Yuji Kuroiwa, told reporters at the vehicle’s recent media launch, according to the Japan Times. Shinjiro Koizumi – son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi – who is a ruling party MP for Kanagawa, told reporters: “There are a lot of people who say self-driving cars are impossible. But I think this will happen faster than people expect.”
- Robot-Taxi at the media launch: always an attendant in the car.