Shizuoka: Suzuki teams up with Softbank

Separate to the recent wave of Ministry of Transport-designated “roadside station” testing, in September 2016 the Japanese carmaker Suzuki decided to announce a standalone automated driving test to take place in late 2018 in the prefectural capital Hamamatsu’s Shounai area (pop: 586) which lacks any public transportation. Similar to the recent announcements in Fukuoka, it seems that the agreement made with SB Drive and local rail/bus operator Enshu Railways was to explore the on-demand transportation options that could be offered to the local mobility-impaired population via a smartphone application.

At the event, Suzuki’s President and CEO Mr Suzuki made no secrets about his company being “behind other (car) makers” in the area of automated driving, and he is looking to accelerate that capability via this agreement. The mayor of Hamamatsu City is hoping for the results of this test to be used as the basis for testing in other cities across Japan, although this will be heavily dependent on whether sufficient data can be collected over a reasonable enough timeframe, including failures and frustrations. These will be useful to improve the Hamamatsu model prior to exporting it elsewhere in Japan.

One issue remains that in other “roadside station”-type tests already running this year in 2017, the scope of the tests is already clearly defined. One year on from the announcement, and little can be found online in the way of test details. An article in the Chunichi News in August 2017, suggests a first test this year using a regular (Suzuki?) passenger vehicle with a driver physically driving (?!) the car along a predefined route with one passenger… not exactly what we had in mind for “automated” driving.

In order to move things forward apace, as SB Drive is also working on testing across Japan with other prefectures, one recommendation would be to follow up with a small roadside station-like test in the Shounai area as early as this year using either retrofitted Enshu Railway bus stock or spare SB Drive test vehicles. Goal would be to get some early data and hands-on experience to shape more in-depth testing in 2018.

In parallel, planning could start for more substantial 9-month-long testing during 2018, with for example 3 months testing for each of three critical use cases. That is, the transport of:

  1. Elderly/mobility-impaired from small village to city/commercial center (eg expected scope of upcoming testing in the Shounai area),
  2. Agricultural produce from farm to and from supermarket/warehouse/roadside station-like location (eg what’s being tested in Fukuoka, Tokushima etc but on a longer timescale),
  3. Out-of-town visitors from mass transit rail to and from local tourist attractions. For example, a dedicated 16km route from Hamamatsu Station straight to the renowned and spiritual Kanzanji summer fireworks festival. Note that the festival is just 2km away from the Shounai area where the announced testing is due to take place, so one could design a route extending the current Shounai test route to go the extra 2km over to the Kanzanji temple area in one direction, and then out to Hamamatsu train station in the other. The total route would not be more than 20-odd km one-way.

This approach could set Shizuoka apart from other tests happening across the country typically limited to collecting data over one, maybe two weeks. Kicking off with a tried-and-tested national template, then aggregating a treasure trove of nearly 40 times more automated driving data than any other prefecture, would definitely put Shizuoka and its partners in a leadership position within just a couple of months… Something worth considering!