Suburban automated driving in Chiba… and a crash

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For someone who has supposedly travelled through much of Japan, it is rather embarrassing to say that I haven’t actually travelled extensively to any part of Chiba. Apart from shuttling to and from Narita Airport to fly abroad, and having friends in Funabashi, but that doesn’t really count. Adjacent to Tokyo, Chiba is one of the few prefectures in Japan still experiencing overall population increase, with certain pockets such as the city of Shiroi showing a massive 10% increase over the 2005-2010 period. And as we will see below, the two recent automated driving tests in the prefecture are squarely focused on the suburban use cases, rather than the rural use cases that we have covered in other prefectures.

Overlooking Tokyo Bay and adjacent to the large Aeon mall complex of Makuhari Shintoshin, the Toyosuna Park was the location for a first series of automated driving tests for ten days in August 2016. The tests were operated by Japanese IT giant DeNA using French maker EasyMile’s 12-seater EZ10 electric vehicle platform, with the trip actually costing locals 200 yen (or 100 yen for children). Rather interesting considering many other of these tests up and down the country (even by DeNA) have been provided to-date for free. It is unclear how many locals actually tried it out, considering it was going up and down the only 250m-long pedestrian roadway in the park, but this test has all the hallmarks of a demonstration run geared to jog the imagination of local businesses towards a future mall-centric mobility. One could easily imagine a future where mall owners offer free shuttle buses to their mall, or subsidize on-demand bus services from local residential areas to or around the mall. This could start with stay-at-home parents doing the daily shop, station-to-mall-to-residence loops for office workers on their way home from work in Tokyo, or of course bulk-buy weekend services.

Considering many local government entities are struggling to keep running local buses at a profit, such subsidization could offer a multifaceted benefit for citizens and store owners, and keep local bus companies in service. Not content with waiting for that future, Aeon both sponsored the automated drive test above and is already running two free bus services today in collaboration with local bus company Kisei, serving the local communities of Hanamikawa and Isobe/Takahama with bus services 4-5 times a day. To-date there have been no further announcements from Aeon to take their shuttle bus services to the next level of automation, But it is not difficult to imagine the store-to-mall mobility model working not only in Chiba, but replicated out to similar suburban sprawl across Japan, from Okinawa in the deep south to Hokkaido in the north.

Located in the Northwest corner of the prefecture just near Tokyo, the University of Tokyo’s advanced-technology Kashiwa campus was the location for another series of automated driving tests. In a purpose-built facility with 300m-long test route occupying the northwest corner of the campus, the “ITS R&R Field” (replicating urban and suburban road infrastructure including traffic lights) is setup for the benefit of automated drive testing. Just a few months ago in May 2017, it was announced that another Japanese IT giant Softbank’s automated driving arm SB Drive along with Suishin Mobility were reportedly developing systems to make use of the facility. No.1 focus seems to be reduction in traffic congestion, but in the absence of new announcements, we’ll have to wait and see what systems Softbank has in mind. Note that this test field is in addition to the larger nationwide facility operated by JARI and that just opened in Ibaraki. It is fair to say that Japanese software and systems developers now have a multitude of open test facilities available across Japan for automated testing. Time will tell whether this help Japan take back pole position in the automated driving race in the next couple of years.

But the automated driving picture is not all rosy. Chiba was in the news for a rather difficult event just recently in April 2017, when a potential 38-yr-old buyer of a Nissan Serena entered an unnamed dealer showroom in the city of Yachiyo. The Nissan Serena has been in the local press for being the first vehicle (outside of Tesla) to offer a decent level of vehicle automation on Japanese roads. With its family-friendly minivan shape, automatic braking, and basic cruise control/drive automation on highways, it is being seen as one of the leading early automated driving models on the market today. At the end of the showroom presentation, liking the car, the buyer then proceeded to test-drive it. During the test drive the young salesperson recommended to “refrain” from hitting the brakes before coming to a halt, presumably that the car would do this for them due to its automated functionalities. The car didn’t automatically break, and both are now recovering from minor injuries after hitting another stationary car at low speed. As a result, the local police are making a request to automotive companies and related associations to tighten up the presentation of automated driving features in vehicles.

In the end, responsibility of the accident was put squarely on the two protagonists rather than on Nissan, meaning the event didn’t drive the same emotions as the fatal Tesla incident in the States. But this is a good example of irresistible yet unreasonable technological expectations racing ahead of commonsensical approaches to new and unproven technology. And like all potentially dangerous product promotion, it is important for there to be both strong regulation and clear straightforward marketing communication that ensures people understand what they’re buying and how to operate safely. More work to do on this front then. In a world of increasing promises of immediate and perfect automation, maybe focusing on what a product doesn’t do (eg. because it doesn’t have to) could be a refreshing differentiator and enhance the perception of safe automated driving at the same time.