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Self-driving public transport cruising toward 2020 debut

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    A Nissan Motor Co. Leaf electric vehicle used for the “Easy Ride” robot taxi service, jointly developed by Nissan and DeNA Co., stands during a test drive in Yokohama, Japan, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. The service, which allows the public to use a smartphone app to book 15-minute rides, is scheduled to launch on March 5 for two weeks in Yokohama, according to a joint statement.

Yokohama >> Self-driving taxis and buses are being tested on public roads throughout Japan, with an eye toward putting the technology to practical use from as early as 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are due to be held.

In addition to ensuring safety, companies are also looking at how to make services easier for customers to use by making improvements to the method for calling taxis.

DeNA Co. conducted tests in Yokohama of self-driving taxis that it is co-developing with Nissan Motor Co., following up tests done last spring. Forty families participated in the latest round of tests, using the vehicles for getting to work or taking their children to and from preschool.

They reported that the experience was no different from using a regular taxi.

Fifteen locations were set as taxi stops during the experiment, centering on Yokohama’s Chinatown and the Minato Mirai areas, and marking an expansion of the area where self-driving taxis were permitted to run.

While last year’s experiment operated with a reservation system, this year’s test mimicked practical use, with participants using a smartphone app to call the taxis at will to the location they desired. The latest test also introduced automated doors that activate when passengers scan a QR code on the vehicle using a smartphone camera. After testing, the target date for commercializing the vehicles is early 2020.

Efficiency concerns include using artificial intelligence technology to determine popular locations and busy times.

The taxi and bus industries have high hopes that self-driving vehicles will be a way to address the shortage of drivers.

In conjunction with ZMP Inc., which develops self-driving technology, the taxi company Hinomaru Kotsu Co. is one of the businesses aiming to put self-driving taxis into service in 2020.

Last August and September, they conducted the world’s first test involving paying passengers on a three-mile route in Tokyo.

From December through March, Gunma University and Nippon Chuo Bus Co. also tested a self-driving bus service along an approximately half-mile route in Maebashi.

Although tests have been repeated in different parts of the country, the safety of self-driving vehicles is still uncertain.

While a driver rode each vehicle during the Yokohama test, the taxis were deployed on rainy days.

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