The island of Kyushu is home to 14.5 million Japanese, and according to the Japan Center for Economic Research, is expected to experience a population drop of 3,000,000 by 2040. In order to improve future mobility in the region, a “Smart Mobility Promotion Consortium” has been setup around Kyushu University to promote experimentation with new mobility technologies.
In June 2016, the four companies of NTT Docomo (Japan’s largest mobile phone provider), IT provider DeNA, Fukuoka City and Kyushu University decided to kickstart experimental automated bus services in the city starting in late 2017. While the first phase will be automated buses within the 275ha sandbox of Kyushu University’s New Campus including an operator in the vehicle at all times, the plan is to progressively move from controlled to real world environments with real traffic scenarios, and eventually operate an automated bus service for students and teachers in and around the campus. While the implementation is laudable, the timetable seems rather conversative considering Mercedes Benz’s existing automated bus service currently travelling 20km between Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and Haarlem. Although it has to be said that the 20km course is relatively sandboxed, it is operational with standard-issue latest-gen buses so there is Kyushu has some catching up to do with the state-of-the-art.
A long time ago I used to work in Miyazaki City local government, down in the SouthEast corner of the island of Kyushu, for about two years between 1999-2001. And while there were buses the service timetable was minimal, mainly catering to the school run, and the rush hour back and forth from the city center to the main residential areas and villages of Miyazaki City. Otherwise, everything was driven by private vehicles. Without a vehicle, there was zero mobility. The motorway was especially fun to drive and connected you easily to all parts of the island. If you left early morning from Miyazaki, you could drive up to Takaoka’s Amagajo Castle to enjoy the cherry blossoms (see image above), zoom up the island expressway network, have Fukuoka Ramen for lunch, and be back for dinner in Miyazaki.
But considering local tax revenues will drop in years to come, and all but essential public transport will likely be phased out or rely on vehicle automation, it will be interesting to see how campus-based experimentation evolves to supporting much broader vehicle automation. As the population drops and the older population become unable to drive, one could expect citizens to vote for candidates that enable them with the same quality of life they’ve come to expect in years past. As our populations age across the world, vehicle automation-driven mobility is likely to become not only a technological or social topic, but very much an economical and political topic in the years to come.