Okayama micro mobility

Okayama Prefecture, along the coast from Yamaguchi to the Kansai area is developing technology to help landlocked towns and villages get connected to the transportation network. One of the most recent examples dates back to 2016, when Toyota’s Mobility Foundation decided to hand $1.1m in funding to two local NPOs to explore transportation via microEVs such as Toyota’s COMS vehicle. The city of Mimasaka was chosen as the location to run these experiments, and the investment set to cover tests over 3 years through to September 2019.

To help in the experiments, Toyota made available 50 COMS vehicles as well as multiple parking spaces for the vehicles. But digging deeper into the details of the investment, it seems the money was allocated to mainly fund the purchase and maintenance of the COMS vehicles (and some left over for people costs) which is something of a mystery. Why would these not be provided at zero cost, while the money could be used to create a traffic control, automated phone booking and analytics system that could be studied/used in the future for COMS (or other microEV) deployments across Japan. If not provided for free, then these vehicles could surely be leased? I’ve seen COMS vehicles in use when I travelled to Northern Japan, where in Miyagi Prefecture for example the vehicles are used for short-distance trips by some local town hall public servants to do local rounds, especially in hilly rural areas where bicycles are too time consuming and passenger cars too large/overkill for the task.

And while Mimasaka as a candidate is laudable, the total population of the rural area where the tests are ongoing is a mere 225 souls. Any data coming out of the testing would be subject to a high degree of variance, especially if only few people use the service and once outlier data is removed in post-processing there may be nothing much left to analyze. Much better if the population was at the tens of thousands level, which is small enough for many rural areas but not too big to negate the use cases of transportation between rural settlements. Conversely, if the plan was to get all residents off their own vehicles and use COMS for free (or some nominal fee) for the next 3 years, then it would be educational to see just how they would react/utilize the service. My guess is that in many cases for a nominal fee, it would be more convenient to use these vehicles vs generic-purpose-built passenger vehicles and certainly more wieldy along country lanes. This would be part of a leasing system that would be economically feasible including charging stations to meet traffic needs captured by the COMS vehicles themselves.

But to-date there seems to be no plan beyond providing the vehicles and seeing what will happen. Maybe a more up to date plan could be shared to help clarify these topics? There is little information available about this, and I couldn’t find any progress report online to-date. As a personal fan of COMS vehicles for specific rural use cases, I believe it would be a shame to have such forward-looking investments produce no concrete results.