Automated Driving Tests in Okinawa

Let’s start our tour of the regions down in Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan. Last year I organized a family trip down to the islands of Ishigaki and Haterumajima far from the main Okinawan island of Okinawa Honto. On Haterumajima we rented a car to navigate the tiny island in the scorching heat so as to stave off very possible heat stroke. There were no road marks, no demarcation lines, tiny streets, no traffic lights, and sugar cane plantations as far as the eye could see. As I drove down the road it dawned on me that this would be prime automated driving country. Just rent cars that drive you around while you take photos and enjoy the scenery.

It seems I was not the only one thinking along these lines. Just yesterday on the main island of Okinawa Honto, the Okinawa government started testing automated buses in the city of Nanjo on a 2km section of public road alongside the Azama Sansan Beach. According to this article in the Nikkei newspaper, the tests are to ensure the buses stop within 4cm of the kerb at two virtual bus stops, to allow for the smooth loading and offloading of wheelchair passengers. While acceleration and guidance is automated, braking is done by the bus driver present in the vehicle. The company providing the technology is up and coming startup SB Drive, the automated driving technology venture of Japanese IT giant Softbank. See a video concept here:

At the end of the month, the tests will stop, data analyzed and prepared for real world automated bus testing on other undefined “remote” islands starting June 2017. Next up: Haterumajima?

And this will not be the first or the last such attempt. About four years ago in 2014, Denso was teaming up with NEC and JAXA the Japanese space agency, to use super precise GPS signals from new satellites to test micro EV mobility on the island of Kumejima down to 10cm precision. While the vehicles chosen were the 1-person Toyota COMS-type vehicles, the idea was that you could setup a control center in Central Kumejima and that vehicles would use precise GPS as well as vehicle sensors to get you around the island. It seems Okinawa due to its remoteness has become something of a testing ground for automated driving mobility concepts over the years. Could this idea of on-demand fully automated bus services for sparsely-populated suburban/rural areas really make commercial sense? We’ll have to see how other regions have tackled the problem to be sure… Next stop: Kyushu!