Tokyo trials driverless taxis ahead of 2020 Olympics
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Tokyo trials driverless taxis ahead of 2020 Olympics

JAPAN is using smart vehicles to gear up for the Olympics.

Tokyo trialled a self-driving taxi earlier this week, successfully transporting paying passengers through the busy streets of the city.

This helped raise confidence that the service will be ready to shuttle athletes and tourists between sports venues in time for the summer of 2020.

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According to the developer of the autonomous driving technology ZMP, along with taxi company Hinomaru Kotsu, the road tests that commenced this week are the first in the world involving driverless taxis and fare-paying passengers.

The trial saw a sensor-equipped minivan make four round trips a day on a busy 5.3 km route between Otemachi and Roppongi Districts. So far, over 1,500 people were reported to have applied to be passengers.

ZMP and Hinomaru Kotsu have planned 96 journeys between the two locations across the duration of the trial.

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A stereo vision camera is seen on ZMP Inc’s RoboCar MiniVan, a self-driving taxi based on a Toyota Estima Hybrid car, operated by Hinomaru Kotsu Co, before its services proving test in Tokyo, Japan Aug 27, 2018. Source: Reuters/Toru Hanai

During the tests, a driver and an assistant are on board as a precautionary measure. Although the humans can take control of the vehicle in case of mishaps, so far no incidents have been reported.

Incorporating more convenience into the journey, passengers can pay a one-way fare of JPY1,500 (about US$13) using a smartphone app.

Interesting to note, passengers can unlock the door themselves. All human-driven Japanese taxis are currently fitted with doors that are remotely controlled by the driver.

The trial came on the heels of Toyota’s announcement of investing US$500m in a joint venture with Uber to develop self-driving vehicles. This will put them at odds with rival initiatives in Japan, the US, and Europe.

Toyota and Uber will be designing the vehicles based on the Japanese carmakers’ Sienna minivans. They aim to begin tests in 2021.

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For ZMP, this isn’t the first trial of driverless taxis – it worked on another project back in March 2016, partnering with Japanese tech firm DeNa. It uses Toyota’s Estima minivans, to ferry residents in Fujisawa from their homes to the local shops.

Similarly, Nissan and DeNA have started testing their Easy Ride robo-vehicle service earlier this year on a set 4.5km route in Yokohama.

The latest tests in Tokyo is due to end in early September. In a bid to prepare for the games, the firms will be conducting follow-up tests later this year connecting Haneda airport and the city center’s transport hubs.

As Japan’s population grows older, it is positioned to be an ideal market for testing self-driving vehicles. Especially in depopulated rural areas, the number of drivers is in steep decline and the number of accidents involving older motorists is increasing.

Driverless cars and robo-taxis can help reduce the risk of accidents and provide a convenient mode of transport for the elderly population.

This article was first published on our sister website Tech Wire Asia.