Toyama and Uber experimentation

According to a joint 2014 paper by Kyoto and Toyama Universities, Toyama is the Japanese prefecture with the highest prevalence of vehicle usage to get from A to B (82.3%), and conversely with the lowest usage (1.7%) of public transport of any kind. Possibly for this reason Toyama has been the location for a number of high profile automated driving and new mobility experiments over the last two years. For example, Tesla’s 600km automated drive test in January 2017 started in Toyama. As a showcase for the newly release Autopilot 8.0 running on Tesla’s Model S and ending in Tokyo, it showed off its partially automated driving performance under situations of snow and ice, as well as dense urban areas. Another project running in parallel, and still ongoing to my knowledge, is the testing of Gunma University’s 3 automated driving pod prototype in the Unazuki Onsen area (we covered the vehicles previously here).

But maybe the most high profile was the introduction of Uber in its global form of connecting drivers with rides via its ubiquitous phone app. Back in early 2016, Uber signed a deal with the City of Nanto to offer transportation services to the local rural population, especially focused on areas traditionally not well served by either public transportation or local taxi companies. The city decided to put up 4m yen ($40k) in special funding towards exploring such project and the agreement was signed. Unfortunately the local taxi associations were not thrilled with the prospect, especially as the plan would seem to go against the legal ban on unlicensed “shirotaku” taxi drivers.

There was a potential loophole that if the drivers were unpaid volunteers, then the legal ban could not have been invoked. One could image this being leveraged differently by Uber – they could have asked users to pay a subscription (e.g. all-you-can-ride season pass) and then users could ride any vehicle driven by volunteers that could be compensated by Uber indirectly. Something similar was used by the Ishinomaki community group I met in Northern Japan, where all money for the upkeep of the EV would be pooled to pay for fuel/maintenance/oil checks/tax disk etc for the month ahead. The driver was a volunteer and his time booked by users over the phone based on his availability. If anything was leftover in the kitty at the end of the month, it was returned to users by organizing for example a weekend trip for all users the following month. And the general idea for volunteer drivers was proposed by Uber, but it presumably did not respond to the concerns of the local taxi community: 2 weeks after the announcement, the agreement was scrapped after overwhelming local pressure.

While it is easy to categorize this as a failed project, on the contrary, the fact that the city actually allocated local tax dollars to this activity shows a very forward-thinking attitude in line with the approach of innovation testbeds globally. For example many Department of Transportation agencies in the US have shown such thought leadership at both the state and city level. To name but a few, one can think of Colorado with their Road-X program, Michigan with their build-out of the autonomous driving mini-city M-City, or Columbus Ohio with their Smart City project valued at $40m. And only such experimentation will lead local authorities to real innovation benefiting local citizens with local issues. Maybe it is time for more cities to do the same, maybe fail, but at least gain knowledge of what technology can and cannot do to solve its pressing social problems.