Theme park automated driving in Nagasaki

My memories of Nagasaki remain set in the fog and pouring rain of a dark December weekend back in 2000. Especially dark as I drove most of the day up from Miyazaki Prefecture where I was living to visit a friend in hospital there. I remember spending a long time driving around trying to find the hospital between Nagasaki and Saga after taking a wrong route, and then taking massive detours the following day on the way back between Oita and Miyazaki due to heavy snowfall cutting off my usual shortcut route through the mystical mountainous area of Takachiho.

During the middle ages and until the 19th century when Japan was closed to the world, Nagasaki was one of the few locations in Japan to have any connection to the outside world. Open to international influences from gunpowder to foreign foods, Nagasaki became especially influenced by Dutch and Portuguese culture, religion and architecture. Against this historical backdrop what better place in the 1990s, when middle class Japanese wanted to visit the world (yet were unable to get long enough holidays to make the trip), to bring the world to Japan. More specifically to replicate a life-sized chunk of Holland, in the shape of the fictitious town of Huis Ten Bosch in the outskirts of the Sasebo area. The theme park fastidiously replicates a Dutch town from the middle ages, and is believed to have been inspired by The Hague in modern day Holland. With canals and waterlocks, windmills, town centers and unbelievably realistic buildings at massive scale, it is sometimes difficult to believe this miniature city really exists.

Automated driving tests within this theme park were announced back in 2015 as part of a broader scheme to boost tourist revenues, reduce costs in the operation of buses across the site, and offer mobility for increasingly disadvantaged rural communities in the broader region. According to this documentation on the Prime Minister’s Office website, the plan proposed not only testing inside the sprawling theme park, but also testing different automated driving use cases (such as high-density city center and intersection testing) on the road network adjacent to the park.

Unfortunately little progress seems to have been made on the grand plan proposed on any subsequent government documents, and one cannot find for example any automated bus schedules on the Huis Ten Bosch website either. While it is possible to rent a bike, baby stroller (or electric cart?) to get around, there is a system of buses crisscrossing the facility and it’s possible the automated driving plans have been quietly delayed. But while the idea of testing such vehicles within a confined area is not new, and is indeed promoted at trade shows and other closed-facility tests in Japan (eg at the Kanazawa Zoological Park in Kanagawa prefecture), testing in the context of a theme park is probably a first which could easily be tried out at other theme parks across Japan or abroad… Food for thought?