Automated logistics for Ibaraki farm produce

Ibaraki prefecture, just to the North East of Tokyo facing the Pacific Ocean, is well known for the Tsukuba Science Center as well hosting the headquarters of Hitachi, the Japanese electronics giant. Through its interconnectedness with neighbouring Tokyo, Saitama and Chiba prefectures, the southern part of the prefecture has defied the population decline seen in many parts of Japan. However the population in the northern half of the prefecture has been slowly dropping for the last 10 years and it is likely this trend will continue into the foreseeable future. It is very possible that in this climate of demographic decline the roadside station of Hitachi Ota, in the North of the prefecture, was chosen by the Ministry of Land and Transport for automated testing starting next month in September 2017. In this test, a 4km route east of the roadside station is being detailed that will help test out (1) whether automated shuttles to and from the roadside station can rendezvous successfully with other local buses, (2) whether vehicle automation can be applied to ferrying farm produce to and from the roadside station, and onto long-distance buses for further transport into Tokyo.

The second item has been championed by the city of Hitachi Ota (as well as seven other prefectures), ever since Japanese law changed in 2015 allowing mixed human-produce transportation on long-distance buses for shipments under 350kg. Considering the strong evidence we’ve seen that many bus operations in communities throughout Japan are generally running at a loss, this is a welcome new source of revenue. Plus there are already paying passengers funding the bus route, meaning a slot for farm produce in the hold costs 1/5th the cost of shipping it with a regular haulier or logistics contractor. Leading to extra revenue for the farmer and more fresh local produce direct to Tokyo. It also takes the pressure off hauliers who are increasingly unable to find any drivers to drive their loads.

The current process is that the farmer loads the produce into multiple standardized cooled delivery units at the farm late at night, heads down to the local roadside station’s long distance bus loading bay, and offloads the containers there. Roadside station staff (and/or bus staff?) load the containers into the bus hold, and the bus departs for Tokyo. On arrival, the containers are offloaded by a delivery company such as Yamato, and it is then couriered to the supermarket in time for opening. While in many roadside station tests across Japan, the idea is to automate the vehicle to pick up a local in their rural location and deliver them to their destination (ie the roadside station, hospital etc), this test looks at the problem differently. Ibaraki are testing if automation can alleviate the need for farmers to come down to the roadside station, and rather take the roadside station to the farmers via automated shuttles. If the shuttle-to-bus transfer can be further automated/mechanized, such as we see today for mechanized baggage loading into passenger planes at large airports, this could provide additional savings down the value chain.

In order to make that automated shuttle a reality, automated drive testing off-highway is going to need to become a reality much faster than most of us expect. Earlier in April 2017, automotive Tier-1s Hitachi Automotive Systems and Clarion announced the results of downtown tests using multiple sensors loaded onto current vehicle model started tests at the Japan Safe Driving Center facilities at Hitachi Naka located in central coastal Ibaraki. The results of testing in the simulated downtown testing area allowing multiple use cases of pedestrian, bike and vehicle intersections, showed the difficulty of sensor fusion especially when moving at low speeds as well as the importance of a pre-collected map of the area allowing for accelerated baselining.

In early 2017, I met the Japan Automobile Research Institute (JARI) at their offices in Central Tokyo for an open discussion on automated driving technologies. In March 2017, they had just opened a massive “Jtown” facility modelled on Michigan’s MCity in the US and tailored specifically for downtown-focused testing of automated driving technologies. The facility, replicating non-highway downtown areas such as roundabouts and intersections, also has dedicated areas such as for V2X testing and a closed environmental test chamber where automotive systems can test their performance against controlled environmental conditions such as rain, bright lighting or fog. It will be interesting to see if any logistics-related testing will come out of Jtown in the near future.

Not limiting themselves to the test tracks, local government officials are already supporting automated bus tests in Hitachi city itself, along a 4km bus-only route from the JR station of Omika using the existing Hitachi BRT line. These tests are supposedly running through this year, although I haven’t been able to find any updates online. The setup is loosely based on the 20km Daimler automated bus service from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to the Haarlem district on a bus-only route. Results are likely to come in sometime in 2018 when a verification phase will begin.

To summarize, we’ve seen multiple automated driving developments in Ibaraki, that is, strong evidence of broad public-private support and active efforts to move the field forward. However I’m still missing research/testing completed on real-life, winding, badly-lit, moderately-maintained and narrow rural roads out in the farming communities of (say) Hitachi Ota. And this is missing not just in Ibaraki, but across Japan. Such roads are representative of the roads that farmers currently navigate on their way down to the roadside station or other depot. Beyond just mapping the roads in detail, the road conditions and constraints will need to be well-understood, modelled and classified. This will allow current and future AI/sensor systems tailored to logistics optimization to have at least a few tools to give them a headstart in making informed decisions during automated routing and navigation. Such testing could easily take place in Ibaraki as an extension of the current tests happening there, filling a gap in the market that will be needed by every other prefecture at some point in time when they look to optimize the transportation of goods along the road network. It could be not only the first to test out the feasibility of automated logistics from farm to supermarket, but also help turn that model into a mass-market reality by disseminating it across Japan and abroad… Will Ibaraki step up to the challenge?