Transportation & Logistics

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New for the 2020 Olympics: Driverless Taxis

18 Nov, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The Internet of Things is about become the Internet of the Olympic Rings. Japan is planning to use the 2020 Games in Tokyo to show the world it’s still a tech leader.  And one of those demos might just attract as much attention as anything that plays out in a pool, a gym or on a field.

Because what Japan wants to introduce is an autonomous, self-driving taxi.

It’s still in development, but according to an article in Quartz, Tokyo-based Robot Taxi (note: the link is there, but you’ll need to be able to read Japanese) is still on track to start field tests of its driverless taxi service in one region of Japan by the end of next March. The company, a joint venture between DeNA (one of Japan’s mobile internet pioneers) and ZMP (a robotics firm; tagline “Robot of Everything”) is not building its own cars from scratch. Instead, it’s focusing on adding driverless capabilities to existing cars and designing, creating, and marketing the taxi service.

Hiroshi Nakajima, Robot Taxi’s exec, has said the service was originally intended to be helpful to Japan’s large elderly population, particularly seniors who live in isolated or rural locations where there are driver shortages. However, if all goes according to plan, thousands of robot taxis will be in service in Tokyo by 2020, if possible. (For context, there were reportedly more than 50,000 taxis in Tokyo last year.) And that means plenty of them will be pressed into service by tourists in town for the Games.

Provided, of course, all the bugs can be worked out. There are formidable challenges inherent is getting the technology to work, including autonomous driving on local roads—not just highways—and having precision maps, which Robot Taxi has been collecting and creating.

There are also challenges on the regulatory front, including getting permission for an autonomous taxi fleet to exist.

There are potential issues related to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, Nakajima says, which includes the line: “Every vehicle or combination of vehicles proceeding as a unit shall have a driver.”

Plus, the Japanese government has to sign off on driverless taxis as well. One good sign: Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe recently spoke publicly in favor of self-driving cars. “I can tell you that in 2020 Tokyo, self-driving cars will be running around, and you will be able to use them to move around,” he said in October.

And it’s an industry that can only be expected to grow. WTVY reports that some Japanese analysts predict one of every four cars sold will be driverless by 2035.

If the taxis are working in time for the Games, it will be the greatest technology and public relations coup in Olympic history and the vehicles will probably be mobbed by those who want to ride in them, just so they can say they did.

If there are problems, however, expect to hear about them, not unlike when reporters hilariously tweeted the world after they arrived in Sochi to discover a city not quite ready for prime time.

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