Nara: reinventing the cradle of the Japanese nation

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The Nara region contains some of the earliest records and vestiges of Japan transitioning from prehistory into history. The 8th century Asuka and Nara eras, named after the cities where the imperial centers were based, witnessed the first time Japan was ruled nationally from a single region. It was also the beginning of recorded literature, the beginning of city planning, national administration and transportation infrastructure (as well as religion) imported from China, national reform of the concept of private landowner control to state control. The name of the ruling Yamato clan at the time has now become a synonym for Japan itself.

It should then come as no surprise that the first connected vehicle mobility services to come out of this region are focused on tourism to help visitors learn more about the Asuka era and explore the area. Back in October 2014, after 2013 testing in Kagawa that we covered previously, the Michimo microEV rental and navigation car sharing service was setup in collaboration with Nissan (providing their open-air 2-seater New Mobility Concept vehicle) and Softbank (providing the tablet, navigation and communication systems). The idea was that you’d pick up a microEV rental at the train station, charged and ready to take you round the village of Asuka, taking in the sights even on small winding country roads (within the 100km range of course). In case of breakdown or loss of charge, a truck would come and tow you back to the train station or maybe the closest charging stand.

The cost of the service at the time was 8,000 yen for a day’s worth of travel, and this was further broken 6 months later to additional (more approachable) 3- and 5-hour rental packages. But at 3,240yen for 3 hours, it is still rather steep considering a 6-hour rental of an automatic-drive 5-seater Nissan Note with popular Japanese carsharing service Careco will set you back only 3,800yen in the center of Tokyo. That’s almost double the price. To be fair, the available service area has grown beyond just Asuka Village and now covers much of Kashihara City to the north and some of Takatori Village to the south. The available vehicles now also include the 4-seater Mitsubishi compact i-MiEV with a range of 120km, which in my view is more realistic for the longer term: the vehicle actually has windows and an enclosed space extending the usability of the service into colder months as well as inclement/wet weather.

Things are also moving at a regional level where as part of the 31-year old Keihanna Science City straddling all three prefectures including Osaka and Kyoto, Nara is putting together what it calls K-PEP (short for Keihanna Public road Experimentation Platform). Announced back in September 2017, this is a planned platform for shared advanced experimentation on next-generation mobility including automated driving on public roads. It also apparently makes it easier to act as a one-stop-shop for authorizations towards public authorities, freeing up member organizations to focus on developing and testing out services instead of filling out forms. While this should really be automated and run online, it is in my view a good starting point for rapid cycle experimentation. The platform further includes (1) a proposed “RDMM support center” offering support for research, development, making and marketing, (2) a “Club Keihanna” offering bottom-up surveying and workshopping services with over 1,000 willing participants, and (3) an “Innovation Consortium” for matching and information sharing among its 75 members. Such a well-thought-out support structure, with serious founding members such as Panasonic, Omron, (at the time) Hitachi Maxell, Mercedes Benz Japan, and others, can only be applauded and proposed as a role model for regional innovation collaboration. It will be interesting to see how this helps accelerate automated driving activities locally versus similar regional automated driving consortium efforts in the Aichi and Tokyo regions.

At the same time, depopulation and an aging population are leading not only to stagnation in local infrastructure investment but actually a decline in recent years. In a Nikkei article just this morning, of the 220 towns and villages across Japan having experienced a 10% population drop over the last 5 years, over 50% plan to halt new investment in road network infrastructure if not start to begin the destruction of underused or disused facilities. Furthermore over 90% consider there will be significant impact on public transportation services in their localities within the next ten years at the latest, while over 60% expect this to happen within the next five years. These are shocking numbers, which on the surface may be welcomed as they provide a rationalization of the cost structure to maintain underutilized assets for a dwindling userbase. At the same time, it isolates the population with little to replace it and weakens the socioeconomic safety net.

A 30km drive southeast from Asuka village town hall, the small community of Kawakami (pop: 1,498) has decided to take things into their own hands. Getting together with locals, in August 2016 the village started up an Association called “Kawakami Life” which offers a full range of mobility services to its population, from delivery services, hospital and supermarket shuttle buses, mobile doctor and home helper visits, local get-togethers and so on. From its website it seems to refuse the assumption that local communities should resign themselves to the slow erosion of services and quality of life. But rather to collaborate in self-organizing the way services should be provided and received, adapting to the new paradigm of diffuse population demand and restricted mobility availability that we have covered in multiple regions including Kagawa and Yamanashi. It is a shining example of what can be accomplished with creative local collaboration. Could it further benefit from the support of larger national players in order to provide a solid and sustainable service over the long term, like what we have seen for Michimo? Probably. But for the time being, reaching a steady state for their existing services is likely to remain their first priority. In the cradle of historical Japan, the population are reinventing themselves for the 21st century… Something that we could all learn from, and not only in Japan.