August 28, 2018 4:00 PM, EDT

Driver Shortage in Japan Speeds Up Commercial Use of Self-Driving Tech

Regular taxi in TokyoRegular taxis like this one in Tokyo are sharing the road with self-driving taxis in a trial. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)

In Tokyo, self-driving taxis that transport passengers for a fee are being trialed. A serious shortage of taxi drivers lies behind the move, but the development of laws and regulations to deal with accidents and other issues still is lacking.

Major taxi operator Hinomaru Kotsu Co. has begun a trial operating self-driving cars in cooperation with autonomous-vehicle startup ZMP Inc.

“We would like to introduce self-driving cars to tackle taxi driver shortages,” Hinomaru Kotsu President Kazutaka Tomita said.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, although the number of domestic taxi journeys is on a downtrend, a driver shortage is becoming more conspicuous due to the ages of the drivers.

The two companies are conducting the test in an area between Tokyo’s Otemachi and Roppongi districts, where the use of taxis by businesspeople and foreigners is high. In 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held, a large number of foreigners are likely to visit the area. Under such circumstances, many people are expected to have trouble hailing taxis.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic mascot Miraitowa and Paralympic mascot Someity

Tokyo 2020 Olympic mascot Miraitowa and Paralympic mascot Someity. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Driver shortages are a common challenge for the distribution and bus industries. The effective rate of job openings to applicants by industry in June stood at 2.86 for driving jobs, which significantly exceeds the all-industry average of 1.37. Due to driver shortages, the number of bus routes has been reduced in some regional cities, and delivery companies have hiked prices. Such industry situations are behind the growing momentum toward introducing self-driving technology in commercial vehicles.

Tests in Various Parts of Japan

Efforts to put self-driving cars into practical use are underway in various parts of the country.

In November, tests to operate a self-driving bus will start in Maebashi. NTT Data Corp., Gunma University and other entities will conduct tests on about a 1-kilometer route each way, in which they plan to study the cost of introduction and operation, among other issues.

Yamato Transport Co. has partnered with major information technology company DeNA Co. and is pushing ahead with the development of “Roboneko Yamato,” a self-driving parcel delivery vehicle. Takekazu Inoue of The Japan Research Institute Ltd. said: “Self-driving will first be spread among commercial vehicles whose operation areas are limited.”

Self-driving technology is increasingly being introduced in commercial vehicles worldwide. A self-driving unit of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, signed contracts with U.S.-based automaker Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Britain’s Jaguar Land Rover Automotive that will see the two automakers provide vehicles to the unit with an eye on launching self-driving taxi services.

Where does responsibility lie?

The development of laws compatible with self-driving remains an issue.

A pedestrian was killed in Tempe, Ariz., in March by a self-driving car operated by U.S. company Uber Technologies Inc. In accidents involving self-driving cars, it is necessary to make clear where responsibility lies: with car owners or carmakers.

In April, the Japanese government compiled guidelines for the development of systems concerning self-driving that indicate the direction legal revisions will take in the future. The guidelines stipulate that civil responsibility falls on car owners in principle, as is the case now for drivers of standard vehicles. However, as for criminal responsibility, the guidelines position it as an issue to be discussed, for such reasons as the safety performance of self-driving cars when they are put to practical use is uncertain.

If many users feel concerned about self-driving cars, it will be difficult to popularize the use of such vehicles. “We would like to build trust in safety through the current trial,” ZMP senior official Akihiro Nishimura said.


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