Tokushima: self-driving tourism and supermarkets

Nestled in the southeastern corner of the island of Shikoku, Tokushima is well known for its summer festival Awa-odori dancing but may now become famous for staging the first automated drive tests in Shikoku. Back in February 2014, a local 48 yr old asked Tokushima government via their open opinions internet page whether they planned any experimentation with automated driving to support local society, especially the elderly and other mobility-disadvantaged in the East and South of the Prefecture. The answer was “no plans at current time”. Three and a half years later, and the Ministry of Land and Transport kicked off a study group to prepare for automated drive testing in the city of Miyoshi, population 26,280.

The 7.7km course goes from the roadside station “Nishiiya” to the Yumebutai bridge, including 6 intermediate stops such as hotels, attractions and hot springs. As per the Ministry’s “automated drive station” vision, automated vehicles will be stationed at the “Nishiiya” roadside station, where you would call a vehicle with your smartphone and it would pull up to the kerb and take you to your destination. The service hopes to cater not only for the elderly population without means of personal or public transport, but also to support the 350,000 visitors and tourists who visit the famous ropeway bridge every year. The idea is that visitors will find the service useful enough to spend more money in the area, developing the local economy.

But unfortunately the city plans to put on these services for only one week during the busy autumn colors season from end November to early December, which would probably be insufficient to gather enough data to make a reasoned analysis on the feasibility of such a project. Furthermore, while the roadside station is a valid starting point, why not have the starting point at the Ooboke train station a further 11km away. This would help attract foreign visitors with a Japan Rail and other domestic railway visitors who could visit the roadside station, bridge and local facilities before spending a night nearby. Alternatively one can hope for a formalization of the week-long proof of concept, such as automating certain existing bus routes in the Ooboke-Nishiiya-bridge area. This could be modelled on what is being planned in Okinawa (announced today) where, after multiple automated driving tests in the prefecture, local government started discussions in late July to automate (one or many) bus routes along the heavily trafficked route 58.

In a separate development, Tokushimaru is an interesting concept originating in Tokushima Prefecture I stumbled on by accident and could easily lend itself to automation for logistics. The idea of Tokushimaru is to take the supermarket to you, rather than need you to go to the supermarket. As we know for many mobility-impaired citizens either the elderly or those living in areas with increasingly absent public transportation, it’s very difficult to get around in these transportation deserts. One way could be to take automated taxis to and from those locations to do your shopping at the nearby roadside station/mall as planned by the automated driving tests above, or conversely bring the shopping to you.

And while this is a completely non-automated driving business up and running today, if it was even partially automated one could see this scaling up nationwide. Imagine workers at the Tokushimaru logistics center managing arrivals of fresh food from automated vehicles loaded by local farmers, who then add/remove/top up certain food products in the van ready to head out again. Such a concept, to be implemented by 2020 (!), is actually being separately kicked off by the Ministry of Land and Transport as we speak. The vehicles could then head out on routes connecting all users requesting the van’s arrival. And/or go along predetermined routes stopping at familiar locations such as bus stops, local gas stations etc. On arrival, the van would open up on arrival, user would choose their items, pay, or walk away with chosen products similar to Amazon’s cash register-less Go service. Once the rounds are complete, the vehicle heads back to the center for maintenance, topping up inventory and/or charging.

Formalizing the upcoming automated drive tests in Miyoshi City and automating Tokushimaru-like deliveries could create something close to the government’s vision of automated passenger vehicles and logistics coexisting along Japan’s roadways. This could provide a new boost to the local economy while providing sustainable mobility services to the entire community.