Automated driving and microEV mobility in rural Saitama

Just to the northwest of Tokyo is the prefecture of Saitama, conveniently connected by multiple lines of public transport into Tokyo, and where a good portion of Tokyo’s working population calls home. Rural Saitama was where I was for two months during my very first trip to Japan in the summer of 1996, staying at the far end of one of the railway lines fanning out from Ikebukuro. And while it was possible to get into Tokyo, it required a steady 45min walk past rice paddies and farms to get to the nearby station, followed by a 2h trek changing trains along the way. Considering I wasn’t able to drive at the time, it would have been great to have been able to pick up/dial up an automated-drive microvehicle just for the trips to and from the station.

Twenty years later at the northernmost point of Saitama Prefecture, the rural community of Kamisatomachi was chosen in 2015 for just this kind of next generation mobility experimentation with the full support of the Ministry of Land and Transport. As this town has little to no public transportation, the local town decided to build their own shared mobility vehicle called the Micromobility “Komugicchi” Car and power it sustainably with local solar panels. In collaboration with the Nippon Institute of Technology, HTM-Japan built the 6 microEVs with the support of local government, and farmed out the vehicle development to an unnamed Chinese manufacturer. The vehicles were then made available to the public (to serve up to 36 citizens) and double as local emergency power supply typically in the event of a natural disaster, in a concept we’ve previously being promoted for other EVs on the Japanese market. For example according to Mitsubishi Motors, their Outlander PHEV model can provide up to 10 days of domestic power in case of a power outage. It is interesting that the town didn’t go down the route of just leasing or purchasing Toyota COMS which have been used in some other prefectures. Or maybe it’s a recognition of the fact that designing an EV and getting it built in China and sent back for local use is not a big deal anymore. Something that could worry the domestic car industry. Or provide a sharp reduction in costs, increase vehicle capacity and money to reinvest in next-gen services for drivers and their families.

Nestled halfway betwen Kamisatomachi and Central Tokyo is the town of Tsurugajima, where just last week the Japanese ruling LDP party’s local chapter set aside the 40ha grounds of the former Saitama Agricultural University for automated driving and other future technology purposes. A radius of 10km around the Tsurugashima interchange (where two major West-Tokyo expressways meet, the Kanetsu and Keno Expressways) will be earmarked for proactive automated driving testing. Interestingly aerospace giant IHI has shown interest in testing their latest jet engines there, so the goal is that the area will become a hub for experimentation for various types of new technology and manufacturing leading to the creation of new highly skilled jobs. The area would also become eligible for so-called “regulatory sandbox” conditions, where the strict application of the law especially related to level of autonomy allowed on the roads is relaxed to accelerate innovation and research and development. Unfortunately it is unclear for when this is planned and who actually plans to join, but it is a step in the right direction that should be applauded.

Could automated microEVs, designed in Japan’s regions for specific rural and semi-rural uses, 3d-printed in China, then assembled, packaged and marketed in Japan be the future of Japan’s rural automated mobility? This would offer a blend of local customization and control, plus mass production allowing for low-cost mass-adoption. Drawing a parallel to what happened to the Japanese phone industry with the adoption of the Android OS, albeit marketed and customized by local Japanese companies, this could be a plausible scenario for the mobility industry. Note also that while Apple’s phones outnumber Android OS phones in Japan, 3 of the top 4 domestic brands in Japan according to Interbrand 2017 were mobile phone carrier companies Docomo, au and Softbank. Meaning that while the products themselves may change, for users the brand value and loyalty remains with the final offering party, in this case the mobile phone carrier.

Transposing this to the mobility industry, current Japanese auto brands could easily retain their brand loyalty by co-opting this new manufacturing model for themselves. It would offer them a limited yet increasingly growing market domestically reaching all those who need transportation (especially the young and the old in rural areas) who can’t drive, prefer not to drive or are uninterested in driving. Or like me back in 1996, who still didn’t have a license yet… Sounds like a new mindset will be needed for this new automated mobility paradigm.