Japan is experimenting with driverless, robot taxis

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At your service.
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shino
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Next year, about 50 people in Japan will start using taxis to get between their homes and the local grocery store. The twist? The cabs will have no drivers (paywall).

A test run for a service scheduled for a broader Japan launch in 2020, the experiment will take place in the Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo. The company behind it, Robot Taxi, is a joint venture between mobile-internet firm DeNA and vehicle-technology developer ZMP. The two announced their intentions in May, saying they would roll out self-driving taxis and buses (paywall).

Robot Taxi’s system incorporates GPS, millimeter-wave radar, stereo vision cameras, and image analysis to get around. During the trial, the cabs will drive a distance of about 3 km (almost two miles), partly on major avenues. Crew members will be onboard in case they are needed to avoid accidents.

The company announced the trial yesterday (Oct. 1) at a ceremony in Yokohama, the prefecture’s capital. The attendees included Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and a vice minister in the current government. “There are a lot of people who say it’s impossible,” he said of self-driving cars, “but I think this will happen faster than people expect.”

Indeed some have argued (paywall) that when it comes to self-driving cars, Japan has been asleep at the wheel—and risks ceding the market to foreign rivals. Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, and Tesla are all developing autonomous driving features, and Google has been testing self-driving cars on US roads this year.

Toyota, for its part, is investing $50 million with Stanford and MIT on autonomous-vehicle research, and yesterday it announced an upcoming safety device designed to send and receive information between vehicles and roadway infrastructure. Since it could theoretically detect that a driver was not responding to a red light and reduce speed accordingly, it offers a kind of partially autonomous driving.