SB Drive testing the waters in Tottori

Headed north from Akagi Kougen and then continuing along the Sea of Japan, in three to four hours you’ve arrived in Tottori where a consortium of tech companies are showing the way in what could be an end-to-end self-driving logistics system for automated buses. SB Drive, a subsidiary of Japanese IT conglomerate Softbank created as a joint venture with Tokyo University spinout Suishin Mobility, has been in the spotlight for their approach in supporting bus automation in the regions. They propose automated driving consulting and logistics services.

The youthful management team led by CEO Yuuki Saji first proposed its self-driving system to the small town of Yazu (population: 17,000) in Tottori Prefecture back in May 2016, right after proposing it in the city of Kita Kyushu. The town’s problem was the difficulty to recruit drivers and still turn a profit to ferry the local population around in the local $1-a-ride “SanSan” community bus service. The answer was to automate the drivers and tests will continue until 2018 when the results will tell whether the town moves to automate the service as a standard service or stop the trials.

In March 2017, Yahoo invested just over $4m into SB Drive apparently to support the integration of services such as navigation, traffic and other human-machine interfaces. Suishin Mobility’s role is to take care of working with OEMs and Tier-1 suppliers to source and integrate self-driving vehicle systems, while the ITS Center at Tokyo University takes care of negotiating with local governments and agencies. Parent company Softbank could potentially offer connectivity via their wireless arm, as other companies such as KDDI and their Toyota “Connected Taxi” project are also headed in this direction. So SB Drive’s proposition goes beyond just self-driving testing and offers an end-to-end package for local authorities to test and then automate their bus services.

Unfortunately a year into the trials and there is little information to be found online, so not sure how things are going. Searching on the Tottori bus service websites, it looks like the SanSan service covers both the Oe Line (total length ca 14km, 30mins) and the Shito Line (ca 14km, 25mins), but on the website and timetable there is no mention of any trials being automated nor when the automated bus(es) can be tried out. One can only hope things are going well. In any case, the issues that SB Drive faces along the way will be invaluable to understand how to roll out a future nationwide automated driving system that combines not just buses but also future retrofitted passenger vehicles (plus brand-new highly automated cars just off the production line). This will help determine how quickly automation can really take hold in Japan, or alternatively, what processes/regulation needs to be relaxed asap to allow for a significant improvement in rural citizen mobility by 2020.