A vehicle that residents have never before seen, a driverless shuttle bus, is now visible on the sleepy roads lining its rice fields of the Japanese town of Nishikata.
In areas where elderly residents struggle with fewer bus and taxi services as the population ages and shrinks, experiment with self-driving buses in rural communities such as Nishikata, 115 km (71 miles) north of the capital, Tokyo, are being started in Japan.
The problem with Japan is that its population are not only greying, but declining, in rural areas and therefore autonomous driving could prove crucial in Japan even as the swift advance of autonomous driving technology is prompting cities such as Paris and Singapore to experiment with such services. If the trials begun this month prove successful, Japan could launch self-driving services for remote communities by 2020.
The elderly is planned to be ferried o medical, retail and banking services from highway rest stops to be turned into such hubs.
“Smaller towns in Japan are greying even faster than cities, and there are just not enough workers to operate buses and taxis,” said Hiroshi Nakajima of mobile gaming software maker DeNA Co, which has branched into automotive software.
“But there are a lot of service areas around the country, and they could serve as a hub for mobility services,” added Nakajima, the firm’s automotive director.
Elderly residents of Nishikata, in Japan’s Tochigi prefecture, were transferred between a service area and a municipal complex delivering healthcare services in the initial trials of the firm’s driverless six-seater Robot Shuttle.
While the overall population overall has shrunk 4.5 percent, roughly a third of its 6,300 residents are aged 65 or more, up from about a quarter four years ago, and therefore the town mirrors Japan’s population profile.
“I worry about not being able to go out when I‘m no longer able to drive,” said one test rider, Shizu Yuzawa, adding that she would be open to using such a service.
“As people in towns become older and younger people move away, it’s going to become more difficult to get help getting around,” said the spry 77-year-old, who drives around in a mini-pick-up truck that belonged to her late husband.
Aspects like whether those crossing the path of these automated vehicles would react to the warning it emits and its operational safety in road conditions ranging from puddles to fallen debris were also tested and checked out in the test runs.
Test participant Mieko Shimazaki, 71, reportedly said that the ride, at a speed of about 10 kph (6 mph), felt comfortable and safe. But more speed was demand by her 72-year-old husband, Susumu.
“Self-driving cars could be useful in the future, but I’d like to see them go faster, at least at 40 kph (25 mph).ns.
(Adapted from Reuters)