Tochigi: LRT, roadside stations and retrofitting

Tochigi prefecture has announced details about automated driving tests to take place around its Nishikata “roadside station”. According to an article in the Shimotsuke Online News, the tests will take place from Sep 3 to Sep 9, in a short 1.5km loop around the roadside station with four stops along the way. The vehicle platform will be DeNA’s 6-person vehicle, sourced from their French partner that we’ve covered previously. The streets used in the route will be completely cleared of traffic for 2h in the morning and 2h in the afternoon every day for the purposes of the testing. It’s a first limited step towards real-world automated drive testing, but a useful one.

There is a certain amount of testing activity already in the broader prefecture with Bosch running automated vehicle testing as far back as January 2016 on Tochigi’s Tohoku Expressway and other live-traffic routes. And while it is difficult to find information on Honda testing (their HQ is located a short drive from Utsunomiya City center), that may be related to the recent completion in April 2016 of the massive “Tochigi proving ground” which is the size of 4.5 Tokyo Domes. If you think of Tokyo Dome as the largest possible concert venue you can find in Japan, a couple of those put together gives an idea of the size of the place. With areas dedicated to connected services, and various lengths of route for different types of tests within the complex, one can assume that they’re starting here to polish their systems before taking them on actual roads.

At the same time the city of Utsunomiya has been planning to diversify its modes of mobility, and 2019 is the year when construction should begin on a new 15km East West Light Rail Transit starting near the central train station and ending up on the doorstep of Honda’s R&D facilities. This plan has been in the making for the last 14 years, so this is hoping that the construction will move forward quickly at (or hopefully below) the planned cost of ca.$1/2bn. Unfortunately as we’ve seen with other LRT systems in Japan, although these do help relieve congestion, the lack of operators running a healthy profit over time means that very often these projects end up being shut down, running reduced services or running at a loss. The LRT route is focused on some main thoroughfares and up towards the Honda HQ facilities, so one can expect a decent amount of footfall. But that does assume that people are willing to drop their vehicles at an as-of-yet undefined park and ride areas, and not just drive direct to and from their destination. In any case, as this will be running parallel to regular road traffic, recent train/vehicle collision research by Mazda in Hiroshima may prove to be useful ensuring a certain level of safety when the system goes live.

And while I have not come across any connection between the LRT project and the automated driving tests eg at Nishikata, one cannot help but wonder if the $1/2bn could have been diversified including other projects to reduce congestion. For example: retrofitting local vehicles with sensors and basic automated driving systems to automate them in the city center or in situations of congestion? Remember Cruise Automation and their offer to make any vehicle autonomous for $10,000 (as long as it was an Audi A4/S4)? Now they’re a division of GM bought out at the tune of $1bn. But the immediate need is not for full autonomous capability. Just safety/ADAS-related and automated driving in situations of congestion. In industry-speak, level 2 capability.

A back of the envelope calculation assuming 100% of the 1/2m population of Utsunomiya City own vehicles and use them regularly to travel to and from locations, Tochigi effectively would have a retrofitting budget of $1,000 per vehicle to make all its vehicles automated overnight, not just on a 15km stretch of road. A recent 2016 survey showed that US users would be willing to pay $3,600 for partial automation in their vehicles, and the upcoming Tesla Model 3 will include an enhanced autopilot option for $5,000 which goes far beyond level 2 automation with self-parking. In Japan as of last year already, a full 60% of all Nissan Serena drivers have already paid the upfront $1,000 option for a basic version of automated driving. So the $1,000 number is not unreasonable and could be worth much more.

Retrofitting at the scale of half a million vehicles could further drive down the price of retrofitted units, as well as support an ecosystem of suppliers and service providers, meaning a boost to the local economy. The units could then be standardized in Tochigi and mass-marketed to be sold on to other vehicles in the prefecture, Japan or indeed the wider world. Of course, this is not to advocate a zero-sum equation of LRT vs drive automation. On the contrary, It is a recommendation that while automated vehicles are going to take time to ramp up as a significant portion of total vehicle population, LRT and vehicle automation of existing vehicles should be thought of as one investment package for the future. This will help multiply the reach of the massive effort, cost and multiple years of developed and maintenance required in building physical transit systems, by coordinating it with state-sponsored vehicle automation retrofitting programs.