Japan: 2020, the year of autonomous transport? - 20 Minutes

  • An experiment was launched this week to get from Tokyo airports to the city center with three means of transport, two of which are autonomous, using a single application.
  • Many Japanese manufacturers are working on driverless vehicles, many of which will be tested this Olympic year.
  • Technology is presented as a way to deal with the massive influx of tourists and the declining population.

From our correspondent in Tokyo (Japan),

The taxi comes to a stop along the sidewalk. The man takes out his mobile phone and scans a QR code on the rear window of the vehicle, after briefly tapping on the screen. The sliding door opens instantly, and the guinea pig sets up on board. Then a simple press on a tablet inside sets the car in motion, towards its preprogrammed destination.

It doesn't matter if two operators are seated in front of the driverless taxi. That the “model” of the day, a 35-year-old Canadian - chosen to demonstrate that the system is accessible to foreign tourists -, sometimes struggles to interact with the various vehicles via his mobile application. Or that human intervention is necessary to repeat ascent and descent three or four times, in order to allow dozens of journalists agglutinated on the sidewalk to capture the moment from all angles.

The experiment launched at the start of the week, and which should continue until February 1, is presented as a world first. But it is less a technical demonstration of a driverless vehicle than an overview of a solution that is developing throughout Japan, presented as a response to two major challenges of the Archipelago: the massive influx of foreign tourists and the decrease of the workforce linked to the population decline.

"An opportunity for the taxi industry"

"For our understaffed industry, and as the number of tourists continues to increase, driverless taxis are an opportunity," said Kazutaka Tomita, president of the Hinomaru taxi company. "Technology does not yet allow door-to-door travel, but the contribution of autonomous vehicles can be significant in slots, early in the morning or late in the evening, where few taxis are available, or on specific routes delimited. "

A bus, autonomous taxis and an electric cart used in a driverless transport experiment, in Tokyo on January 20, 2020. - M.CENA / 20 MINUTES

The system tested for two weeks links the two airports serving Tokyo to a central district of the Japanese capital, by combining three means of transport: a bus - with driver - between the airport and a terminal on the outskirts of the city, an autonomous taxi between this terminal and the Marunouchi office and shopping district, which extends in front of Tokyo station, and a single-seater electric cart service to get around in this central pedestrian area.

Main novelty of this experiment: a single application allows you to search for your route, book it, pay for it, and access these different means of transport. A solution called Maas (“mobility as a service”, sometimes translated as “service mobility”) which is booming around the world, and which is used in particular in several French cities.

"The difficulty is to understand the behavior of drivers"

The part of the autonomous taxi journey had already given rise to an experiment in 2018, over a distance of 5 km, between two other Tokyo districts. "This time, the journey is only 3 km, but the traffic conditions are more difficult", explains to 20 Minutes Hisashi Taniguchi, boss of ZMP, the company specializing in robots behind the project. “The difficulty is to understand the behavior of drivers, especially at crossroads. We collected a lot of data the first time, but we need a lot more. "

ZMP, which has partnered for this experiment with seven other players, including the taxi company Hinomaru, the city of Tokyo and the Ministry of Transport, also manufactures the individual electric vehicle that provides the last part of the journey. This cart called Robocar Walk, intended for the elderly or with reduced mobility - but also for tourists who do not understand Japanese, assures the manufacturer -, is similar to the electric wheelchairs already used by the elderly on the sidewalks and in shopping centers .

About 20,000 of these devices are sold in Japan each year, Hisashi Taniguchi recently estimated in an interview with the Japan Times . But unlike manually operated aircraft, exposed to accidents and the risk of getting lost, its Robocar Walk, devoid of steering wheel, brake and accelerator, provides fully automatic transport to a destination chosen in advance on a Tablet. The company hopes to market it in May.

Autonomous transport in the Olympic and Paralympic village

This type of experiment has multiplied in Japan in recent months and should further increase in frequency in 2020. The manufacturers hope to take advantage of this Olympic year, during which the eyes of the whole world will be turned to the Archipelago. Last month, ZMP also tested an autonomous electric passenger bus at Chubu International Airport near Nagoya, where it hopes to start operating this year. The firm also intends to test driverless baggage tractors in 2020 at Narita (near Tokyo) and Osaka airports.

The car manufacturers of the Archipelago are not to be outdone. Toyota will transport athletes to the Olympic and Paralympic village during the Games with its e-Palette minibus, equipped with large doors and electric ramps. Toyota must also test during the summer its TRI-P4, based on the fifth generation of Lexus LS, in the district of Odaiba, built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Other manufacturers have developed vehicles equipped with various levels of autonomy. Like Honda, which could launch a new version of its Legend sedan this summer, allowing the driver to delegate steering to the computer in traffic jams on the highway.


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