Golf carts to the rescue in Iwate

The prefecture of Iwate is just north of Miyagi prefecture where I was three weeks ago in Ishinomaki City surveying mobility options after the 2011 disaster. Iwate was badly hit by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, especially Otsuchi City, where half the town and the entire fishing industry was washed away overnight. In this town of 12,000 inhabitants, many now live in temporary housing not particularly well served by public transportation. Now Tokyo University is hoping that retrofitted golf carts will be a solution to local needs for mobility for families, the elderly, hopefully even tourists, and generally to support local public transportation.

Already back in 2014, Tokyo University’s golf carts were being tested on open roads in Otsuchi City to ferry locals from the closest bus stop to the new town hall. According to this article from 2016, it seems that the golf carts in question are the same modified vehicles developed by Yamaha Motors that we’ve seen being tested in other locations such as Akita. Tests were also attempted beyond Otsuchi City in Kamaishi City just next door, a city that lost nearly 2/3 of its population due to the disaster, but yet where the remaining population appear to have their own vehicles (or have managed to get access to one) and have less interest in such a system. Meaning that at least in Iwate, running autonomous mobility may first require much of the local community not to have (or have lost, or be unable to recover/buy etc) their own vehicle.

These golf carts have since moved their testing south to Ofunato City, set immediately North-East of the 2011 disaster epicenter of Rikuzen Takada, and will begin testing on open roads sometime this year in 2017. Unfortunately the town hall’s official webpage on the topic doesn’t seem to have been updated – let’s hope the project is not delayed and that they’re awaiting the complete results before making anything public. Note that the golf cart vehicle does require magnetic markers to position itself safely in the road, so hopefully this has already been costed into the project. Furthermore to make an impact, Tokyo University and the local authority will need to help locals not only get from the closest bus stop to the town hall and back, but at the very least help all temporarily housed citizens to get to all local amenities easily (supermarkets/drugstores, hospitals and clinics, local cinemas/entertainment, markets/local shops/malls, train/bus station), for free and in an on-demand fashion. This currently seems to be missing from the stated test plans.

It would be a relatively easy process to trace the closest route from each temporary housing estate to the closest such locations, and trace a set of magnetic routes on the ground with magnetic paint, then develop a simple app to manage journeys there/back. Why not build a quick smartphone app using eg the Google/Yahoo Map APIs to trigger the route, then click “call me a vehicle”. That would send the route to the golf cart fleet to come and pick you up, ideally with a couple of neighbours. Or use a dial-in number with basic speech-to-text/text-to-speech to trigger the same from a regular home/pay phone/non-smartphone.

Because while automated driving may be a cool technology, automated mobility for survivors in post-disaster regions should be more akin to a right. The right to have the freedom to dust one’s self off and start one’s life afresh with a modicum of normalcy. The question is who will build this? The longer we wait, the longer those affected by the tsunami 6 years ago remain limited in their ability to relaunch themselves, and thus help revitalize their home town and region.