Oita automated driving buses

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Continuing our journey through Kyushu, the Oita prefecture with its many hot springs is the next prefecture to start experimenting with automated driving. Little surprise on the reason behind it: to support the less mobile who need to get from A to B and may soon not be able to drive themselves.

Starting this August, the Mayor of Oita City has tied up with the Department of Tourism, to kickoff a couple of days of experiments with automated buses to support peak season tourist traffic travelling the 1km-odd stretch from Tanoura Beach up to the Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden and back. The project has been funded by a special 9.8m yen ($90k) budget. And although these are only baby steps, it is telling that regional capitals throughout Japan are putting aside funds (however small) to support upgrading their transport infrastructure ahead of the arrival of automation and an aging population.

I remember travelling to Beppu, Oita’s hot springs capital, back in 2000 up from Miyazaki City where I was working at the time. It was early winter and I remember passing through the town by car, regularly seeing tourists waiting at bus stops in the pouring rain for what one hopes would be a punctual service. Wouldn’t it be great if today one could pull up something similar to a taxi app (or call a free-dial number for non-smartphone folk, which would translate the person’s voice message to text and send directions via API to the call center’s back end), and the bus center would send you a car or reroute the bus to pick you up?

Hopefully this is the promise of shared mobility. Rather than a distant futuristic future, the realization of a personalized bus route schedule today would be easily understood by citizens and could support more tax expenditure in the area that could be experienced immediately. This would increase quality of life for all citizens, and hopefully open options for economic regeneration of areas traditionally not well served by public transport.