Gunma’s ecological community bus approach to mobility

Just over 100km to the Northwest of Tokyo is the picturesque and mountainous area of Gunma, where many visitors enjoy the hundreds of famous hot springs in the area (from Kusatsu to Shibukawa and many more). And while other regions tend to focus only on one type of mobility experimentation, the local university has developed the “Next Generation Mobility Social Implementation Consortium” to proactively bring together partners to support innovation and experimentation. In this article, we’ll focus in on two key areas of (1) world heritage tourism and vehicle ecosystem and (2) diverse use case experimentation (city centre, rural mobility and local tourism).

1. World Heritage Tourism and vehicle ecosystem development

In the late 19th century with the opening of Japan to the outside world, the Tomioka Silk Mill brought cutting-edge machinery from France and then adapted it to Japanese needs. The result helped regenerate the area and accelerate the growth of Japan’s textile industry. Since the Silk Mill gained world heritage status in 2014, visitors from around Japan and overseas have flocked to the site to learn about its history. So one of the University’s key programs has been aimed at ferrying visitors to world heritage sites across the city in a 45min loop using its eco-friendly “Mayu” community buses.

Manufactured by Sync Corporation, Gunma University has already 20 such low-speed 8- to 16-seater vehicles they have developed using their own camera/sensor suite. Naturally these vehicles are only for local community bus purposes and always include a driver, but the University plans to eventually make these automated. This use case is similar to the temple tourism we saw in Fukui, except that the University is both building its own vehicle systems and fostering a local ecosystem for its development.

Beyond the local ecosystem, Gunma University has also developed a number of partnerships in the last 6 months with the likes of Toyo Denso (car parts/system manufacturer), NTT Data (data center and services provider), Aioi Nissay Dowa (Insurance) and has ambitious plans to setup Japan’s largest 6,000 m2 fully autonomous driving test facility opening as early as 2017. One could compare Gunma with the efforts of Tohoku University based out of Sendai, with its local Automated Driving Consortium. But whereas Tohoku is taking a broad-based fundamental-technology approach, including attempting to develop their own Lithium-Ion batteries for mass production, Gunma is clearly positioning itself as a hub for fully autonomous driving experimentation and operations. This is a much narrower and deeper focus, and innovative vs the typical offering prevalent in the Automotive industry today for products and services focused around ADAS.

2. Diverse use case experimentation (city-centre, rural mobility and local tourism)

Surprisingly broad in their applications, Gunma University’s community bus platform first took it to Kiryu City in 2012 (where the University has its campus) to support mobility of its elderly population from the suburbs into the city centre and back. It has since developed into a 30min loop taking in the popular city zoo and city center bakery locations. The last couple of years have seen experimentation grow beyond the city center for multiple routes across the prefecture including:

  • Maebashi Flower Park route
  • Minakami Tanigawa Peak route
  • Midori Peach Blossom Festival route
  • Tamamura Prefectural Women’s University route

And this in addition to renting out 8 of its buses further afield to run their own experimental community bus projects:

  • Nagazaki Prefecture
  • Tomiyama Prefecture
  • Malaysia

With a strong vision of where it wants to be, over the last ten years Gunma has managed the remarkable feat of not only setting up a local mobility consortium, but both an automotive systems partner ecosystem and a common vehicle platform to support diverse use case experimentation both near and far. While it is unclear how quickly these community bus routes will actually become fully automated, what is clear is that it is an exciting time to be in Gunma!