Located in the center of the main island of Honshu, Shiga is a landlocked prefecture surrounding the renowned Biwako lake. Due to its strategic position at the intersection of traffic from Kyoto/Osaka to its immediate west, and traffic coming from the East and Tokyo, during the middle ages the area was the stage of incessant wars of occupation. And while the South and East of the prefecture have seen the most development over the centuries, and benefited from Japan’s post-WW2 construction boom with the Shinkansen bullet train and the expanded expressway network, rural areas of Higashi Oumi City are seeing many of the same mobility issues as in more remote parts of Japan.
Just a few days ago on the 18th of July 2017, a number of local and Ministry of Transport officials from the regions around Higashiomi City gathered in the Eigenji community hall to discuss the launch of automated driving tests from September 2017, focused on the local Michinoeki or “roadside station” that was built less than two years ago. The idea behind the brand-new “Okueigenji Keiryunosato” roadside station is that it can act not only as a rest area where one can get a bite to eat and buy local produce, but as a fully-fledged mini-administrative center including official, medical and community facilities. During the test phase, the automated vehicles will make maximum 5km journeys to and from the Michinoeki along as of yet unspecified routes. Expanding this service in the future would remove the need for local citizens to travel far to the official administrative center of Higashiomi City Hall typically 30mins away by car through winding mountain roads. Door-to-door automated vehicles would ensure better mobility to these hubs without having to drive there personally, very useful for the local aging population but also in conditions of poor visibility and bad weather.
The prototype vehicle used for the Shiga tests will be Senshin Mobility’s 20-seater bus model, maximum speed 40km/h, that uses not only magnetic marker detection but also GPS, gyros and cameras to ensure correct positioning along the road. As mentioned in previous posts, although embedded magnetic markers make sense, it is more beneficial if the magnetic material can be embedded into the road paint, and can be detected regardless of the snow/rain cover. Taking the thought further as paint erodes over time, the magnetic material composition can also be changed/updated at each new painting, leading to different information being embedded within it like reading from magnetic tape. As opposed to a physical marker which is embedded in the road, and (unless it includes read/write flash drive-like functionality) its information and information composition is frozen in time the moment it is installed. If it needs to be dug up and replaced every time vehicle technology becomes obsolete, this will increase the costs to the local authorities, which I can’t see happening regularly across the thousands upon thousands of km of rural roads in Japan.
While it is clear that this project is still in the testing phase, if the 20-seater is to be deployed at scale, it is my guess that it will be more profitable to have a mix of vehicles to complement each other. Ideally a core of 20-seaters for the heavier traffic routes and/or peak hours where vehicle utilization can be maximized, and a larger fleet of smaller 4-seaters for off-peak journeys dispersed across the region. These smaller vehicles could patrol for users that may need a ride, or remain in their charging stations, by analyzing both realtime and historical information re where and when users have requested the service before to predict where the next ride request could come from. Such a system could easily be pre-populated with historical traffic data from existing navigation systems and road junction sensors. That data could then be verified over the course of the next series of tests (next year?) with the automated vehicles doing their rounds before launching nationwide… Exciting times!