Wednesday 26 October 2016

Rising soon: the dawn of an era of buses without drivers plying routes in Japan

Pavel Alpeyev and Takashi Amano

Published 08/09/2016 | 02:30

A bus in Yazu, Tottori, one of four towns partnering with SB Drive on autonomous driving tests
A bus in Yazu, Tottori, one of four towns partnering with SB Drive on autonomous driving tests

If you had to invent the perfect place to roll out self-driving buses, Japan would be it.

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The country boasts an immaculate and extensive road network. Much of the aging population relies on public transport, especially in the countryside, to get around.

And that customer base is shrinking; fewer passengers equals less fares. As a result, only a third of the country's bus companies are profitable, forcing regional governments to step in to support them.

That's why SoftBank Group is building driverless buses, which the Tokyo-based company estimates can cut operating costs by half. Self-driving cars, like those being developed by Uber, Google and carmakers have to be smart enough to traverse unpredictable environments. Buses, on the other hand, follow predetermined routes and can get away with a lower level of machine intelligence. If the Japanese technology and telecommunications company succeeds, its automated buses could be on streets as soon as 2019.

"Japan's aging population is putting the country on the front line of a public transportation crisis," said Yuki Saji (31), chief executive officer of SB Drive, the SoftBank unit that's leading the project. "There is an opportunity for a rapid introduction of this technology. Bus companies want to improve margins, local governments need to cut subsidies for money- losing routes and residents demand convenience."

Introduced in April, SB Drive is a joint venture with Advanced Smart Mobility, a University of Tokyo artificial- intelligence enterprise being led by a Toyota.

With a prototype already navigating a closed course, four towns and cities have signed up to test the vehicles.

SoftBank plans to sell the buses to cities and transit operators. It's an opportunity to grab a piece of a broader market that's projected to be worth as much as $77bn by 2035.

"A number of very complex technologies have to come together to enable autonomous driving," said Jeremy Carlson, an analyst at IHS Markit who covers the sector. "That means smaller and often newer companies can carve out a niche of highly specialised expertise."

Some of the technical building blocks are already in place.

Japan spent more than two decades building out a nationwide network of FM transmitters, radio and infrared beacons that track road and traffic conditions.

"Technological barriers for buses are lower that those for self-driving cars, because you can foresee a lot of the trouble along the route," said Naoki Suganuma, who heads Kanazawa University's self-driving research lab. Challenges extend beyond autonomous driving.

Passengers will expect the same level of service as they do from humans, such as answering questions about schedules and routes. That's why SB Drive's buses will be linked to remote personnel standing by to help. (Bloomberg)

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