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RoboCab at Your Service

Experts believe that fully automated robot taxis will help solve Japan’s social needs and represent a step toward maintaining a more convenient and intuitive environment for foreign residents as the country globalizes.

In increasingly depopulated rural areas throughout Japan, local bus and train services are shrinking in scale or being scrapped altogether, and the elderly are running out of transit solutions. In addition, there is a growing shortage of drivers for nursing service vehicles, and accidents are on the rise. For these reasons, unmanned vehicles known as robot taxis are drawing attention because of their potential to solve these and other dilemmas. Robot Taxi spokesperson Tomonari Kuroda outlined the situation.

DeNA Co.,Ltd. and ZMP Inc.—a leading startup in the automated driving space—entered into a joint venture to create Robot Taxi, Inc. in May 2015. “The response both within and outside of Japan has been great, and we really feel its potential,” Kuroda reports confidently. “We’ve paired the advanced automated driving technology ZMP developed with our own expertise in Internet services, and we believe we can bring new innovation to the transit infrastructure.”

Unmanned vehicles use what is known as “deep learning” to assess their surroundings and movement. The vehicle must be able to make accurate determinations about its constantly changing environs to select appropriate maneuvers. Using camera footage, objects are “learned in” to the machine through a layered neural network, allowing it to detect and interpret the positions of vehicles and pedestrians in real time. Multiple sensors scan the surroundings and synchronize with GPS-based coordinates to precisely evaluate complex environments and ensure safe driving.

Local trains are increasingly being phased out in sparsely populated areas and the elderly in particular find themselves in crisis, left without alternate means of getting around. Robot taxis could potentially be the key to revitalizing Japan’s local regions by aiding the elderly as well as meeting transportation needs.

“It’s said that bus and taxi companies typically spend 50 to 70 percent of costs on personnel,” Kuroda states. “This means they can’t turn a profit even if they shrink their operations. Some find themselves expending costs on cabs that are simply shuttered in storage. Robot taxis will dramatically lower personnel costs and enable the unmanned operation of inactive cars.

“Another pressing issue is the lack of drivers for nursing care vehicles, as well as a growing number of accidents,” Kuroda continues. “Robot taxis may prove to be an economical solution to Japan’s super-aging society.”

Kuroda is also convinced that even when robot taxis become a reality, they will not rob taxi drivers of jobs. “There will be a bifurcation of services—simple transit at low cost with robot taxis, and the more flexible and value-added services human drivers provide, such as conversation, assistance with luggage and other perks,” he predicts. “Compartmentalizing the services in this way will give consumers more choices.”

Trials to test the roadworthiness of these vehicles have just begun. The company’s goal is to have robot taxis cruising the streets in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic. This will require maximizing the technology’s benefits while doing away with any problems, using an iterative experimental process to ensure that the numerous untold circumstances that may occur on the road are accounted for.

“Our goal for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic is to have robot taxis in the city that support the languages of all participating countries,” Kuroda says. “If robot taxis allow foreign guests who can speak neither English nor Japanese to travel using their own language, don’t you suppose it will make them happy?”

All eyes will no doubt be trained on robot taxis as an alleviator of the burdens of an aging society and a key agent of international support in a global city.