Akita and fully autonomous road tests

Nestled in the mountains at equal distance between the northern cities of Akita and Morioka, Akita Prefecture’s Tozawa Lake is an unlikely place for fully automated driving. But it is now the Japanese government’s first designated location for open-road fully automated driving tests.

During the first tests back in November 2016, the test vehicle travelled 400m up and down the designated route at the leisurely top speed of 10km/h near the entrance of the Tozawa Lake. The test vehicle was developed by EasyMile, a startup of 90 employees and joint venture between Ligier Groupe (a French developer of microcars who actually build the vehicles) and Robosoft, a software robotics company. They have been growing their visibility mainly at mobility conferences where it commercializes the flagship 12-seater autonomous EZ10 EV. Their value added reseller in Japan is DeNA.

According to media reports at the Tozawa Lake test site, purchasing one of these vehicles would cost you in the “multiples of $100,000”, which in the real world could buy you anything between an Acura NSX and a Rolls Royce Phantom. We’ll have to see whether the local authorities will be able to stretch their budgets to consider such a purchase good value for money, considering that many cities’ entire light rail transportation budget are in the $m range.

A few months after these tests in April 2017, Akita prefecture was once again designated by the Ministry of Land and Transport as the site for more automated vehicle testing starting in September. The location for these tests in the rural district of Kamikoani (population 2,300), a mere 50km as the crow flies from the November 2016 tests, was designated for real world testing using the Kamikoani Michinoeki facilities as local hub. The goal: to support elderly citizen mobility in the area who may not be well served by the current public transportation network. The Japanese manufacturer Yamaha Motors will develop the 4-6 person passenger vehicle that will travel autonomously, with a safety driver at all times, along a designated route reading magnetic markers embedded within the road for safe positioning. At the slightly faster than before but still unbelievably leisurely speed of 12km/h.

And while it is difficult to find any information regarding what vehicle will actually be used, we can speculate that Yamaha Motors would use this revamped golf cart design developed with Tokyo University, that was tested specifically for autonomous drive capability on the roads of Ishikawa Prefecture’s last October using similar magnetic marker technology. The question again becomes cost re the vehicle (which we don’t know) and the magnetic marker technology (which will likely be expensive to embed in every road, especially if this is to serve rural populations meaning massive kilometrage).

Many early cutting-edge embedded sensor technologies (eg induction loops in Germany etc) have since been rendered obsolete due to the cost of refurbishment and maintenance, plus that the data was found not to be granular enough compared to more modern vehicle-based sensor data. But according to recent Korean research, the combination of magnetic markers embedded in the road every couple of meters and GPS can help improve the overall accuracy of in-lane positioning specifically in adverse conditions such as snow – a real problem half of the year in Akita. If the magnetic marker technology could somehow be embedded in/read off existing road paint, or some other innovative twist on the technology, this would likely both increase the accuracy of in-lane positioning in most adverse road conditions and at a negligible cost to the road authorities.

So could Akita become a model hub for rural use-case, adverse-weather and fully-autonomous driving? We’ll have to wait for the results of the September tests, likely published in early 2018. But there will need to be more kilometrage (eg 100km-route-grade testing) to really test out whether the stated goal of supporting elderly citizens can be supported. Ideally a 70km round-trip from an old-school Japanese thatched cottage in the mountains to the Michinoeki facilities and back, along mountain roads and in snowy weather conditions… Who will step up to the challenge?