Kanazawa and early street-level experimentation

Continuing our journey up the coast past Fukui reaches the province of Ishikawa and its capital Kanazawa City, a medieval coastal town that was once the “other Kyoto” with rich fabrics, luxury goods and highbrow culture from the ancient capital. Travelling there three years ago with family before the arrival of the direct shinkansen service from Tokyo, one could easily see the opulence of its history in the museums, yet the city and its people radiated a subtle energy, discreet and unostentatious.

It is against this background that Kanazawa University and leading Japanese mapmaker Increment P have been working for the last couple of years at pushing the boundaries of street-level automated driving to support the local community. Back in February 2015, Kanazawa University’s Naoki Suganuma and his team were the first university in Japan to kick off street-level testing. The goal: to support future mobility between Kanazawa’s city center and Suzu town nestled in the northeast corner of the Nodo peninsula. And while in Kanazawa I had the luck to be able to sample some of the great seafood from the Nodo peninsula such as the delicious Nodo-Guro fish sashimi, for elderly locals the mobility situation is getting more difficult by the day.

Out of a population of ca 16,000 in 2015, over 44% of the population is already classed as elderly and that number is only going to continue increasing. Due to the shuttering of the rail service, there is a lone 3h bus service that takes people to Kanazawa City Center and back, plus some buses around Suzu although a few only offer one round trip a day. Meaning that in reality unless personal vehicles are used, half the local population could within a couple of years effectively be stuck at home or fully dependent on able-bodied family members.

Doing a quick route search on Google gives a travel distance to and from Suzu closer to 135km (rather than 100km as stated in the slide above), making any implementation far more ambitious than existing tests by DeNA in Yokohama (couple of km), SB Drive in Tottori (ca 15km), or even Daimler’s existing Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to Haarlem 20km automated bus route. The course includes a combination of highway, intersections and rural surface roads, not just semi-sandboxed urban environments, adding to the difficulty. While the first trials have focused on a 6.6 km surface road stretch around the town center, next steps are to increase the scope to a 60km network of routes using prefectural roads to and from Suzu out to the Suzunari and Suzu Shioda Mura Michinoeki (roadside stations), as well as to the highway entrance to Kanazawa. The next round could potentially go the whole hog entering the highway and then on to the Kanazawa Town Hall, which would be a big chunk of the 135km plus 60km, giving a real-world mixed testing network of about 200kms.

In this project, Increment P’s Oishi-san and team offered the 3-dimensional HD Maps to guide the vehicles, Kanazawa University worked with multiple OEMs and integrators to improve and upgrade its Legacy/Prius test platforms. Increment P is one of the leading companies in Japan to have embraced cloud-based map computing and is highly active in automated driving testing. Hopefully there can be more information forthcoming about the 2015 test results and how soon testing can shift from the single digit kms to 60 to 200kms. The sooner we can augment the mobility-impaired with drive automation, the better we can serve all our citizens in all our communities, not just the healthy able-bodied ones in the big city centers.