Flowers and magnetic markers in Nagano

Nagano is another prefecture where there has been a lot of automated driving experimentation announced recently. Especially of note is the Minami Alps Mura Hase roadside station, where tests are due to begin in Autumn 2017 along a 6.9km course up to the Senryusou resort hotel and back, using GPS and sensors (and hopefully some amount of reference mapping). A separate 1.2km route alongside the Miwa dam area will be completed using an automated cart-like vehicle which will use magnetic markers embedded in the road surface.

This is not the first time that automated driving has been employed in Nagano, indeed according to a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, the prefecture was testing out magnetic markers on the Nagano Expressway back in the 1990s in order to guide vehicles more safely even before the Expressway was open to the public. Unfortunately such technology has been effectively dormant for the last twenty years as the rest of the world caught up. If this had been implemented nationwide, Japan could have had magnetic marker-induced automated driving (or at least decent driver-assist including lane changing) for the last 15 years across the main highways of Japan. Current research with GPS, sensors, GPU/CPU, HDMaps and other advanced systems could have helped focus on smaller roads, effectively sealing the last mile gap. And then there would have been an export market waiting for it, as well a domestic automated logistics network helping drastically reduce costs for customers and better manage traffic congestion. Oh well.

There are however a number of automated cart-like vehicles already in use for tourism purposes locally, that do use magnetic marker technology for a fully automated experience. For example the Fujimi Kogen Resort’s Hanano Sato course which takes 25 minutes to automatically drive visitors up to an altitude of 1,420m and enjoy the panorama from the top. Intervention by the driver is only needed to start the vehicle, and it stops automatically at its destination or any intermediate stops on the way. Not been on it myself but guess there’s a stop button somewhere – the description is unclear. The return journey can either be walked (not sure what happens to the carts, do they get sent down automatically or pick up others on the way?), or use the cart to get you back down as well. There is second automated cart route, covering two areas of seasonal local flower displays, with a full round trip of 35 minutes. One assumes a similar marking technology is used across the site.

The G7 Transport Minister’s Summit taking place in late September 2016 in Karuizawa, a popular resort town in the mountains of Nagano, was a good opportunity for Japan (and Nagano) to set the stage in terms of technology leadership for automated driving and related ITS topics. This link from the ministry of transport offers a good overall view of the Japanese position going into the event. In the wake of the heads of state G7 summit having taken place over in Mie Prefecture (and that we covered previously), an immediate win was to get US Secretary of State Fox into an automated Lexus prototype and be driven around. This was definitely not a given, considering how the effort failed in Mie. Further, Germany and Japan co-lead the UN’s WP29 working group on vehicle safety and steering standards, plus Germany hosted the G7 Transport Minister’s summit in 2015 followed by Japan in 2016, so one could say EU-Japan collaboration was predominant at the gathering. And while there was little in the way of major news coming out of the summit, there was a distinct change in emphasis from 2015’s general concerns around easing traffic congestion and saving lives, towards concrete topics such as cybersecurity, reducing regulatory barriers to innovation, setting up collaborative working groups to help accelerate the adoption of standards and so on. Interestingly absent from the previous year was any reference to the climate change topic or COP21.

On the venture front, things are not standing still either. Softbank’s SB Drive has inked an agreement with Hakuba Village, a popular ski resort. One of the original ideas was to automate industrial snow ploughs that clear many of the heavily snowed-in roads in the middle of the night, and currently require human operation. The idea is deviates from what SB Drive have been doing elsewhere in Japan, which is more focused on automating community-bus-like use cases. So we’ll have to wait for an update from regarding whether they’ve made the jump from passenger vehicles to industrial automation. In any case lots of activity going on in Nagano across the spectrum from political to industrial, tourism to social services – one of those prefectures to watch in the months and years ahead.