Driverless taxis could be the bullet train of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
The next summer games could spark a slew of innovation in Japan, once again serving as an antidote to its slumping economy.
Katie CollinsSenior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just tipped a red, cartoonish cap toward what the next summer games will look like in 2020.
As this year's Olympics closed Sunday, Abe accepted the baton from Rio after dressing up as Nintendo's marquee video game protagonist Mario, officially starting the countdown to the Tokyo 2020 games. With Abe's nod to a more high-tech affair, one of the signature innovations could be a fleet of self-driving taxis.
The timing is fitting: The last time the Japanese capital hosted the Olympics in 1964, the country was in a state of post-war malaise. The games marked a turning point in its fortunes. Japan enjoyed sporting success, Tokyo revamped its transport infrastructure by adding major freeways and the bullet train, and a growing middle class started buying TV sets and other appliances, a phenomenon that birthed the term "Olympic economy."
Fast forward to 2016 and the country is once more in an economic slump. Economists are divided as to whether the Olympics will come to Japan's rescue once again. But between the technologies emerging in the run-up to the next games and the government's commitment to investing heavily in robotics, there are plenty of reasons to feel hopeful.
"The 1964 Tokyo Olympics proved it can be a very strong trigger for inter-industry changes," said Tomoyuki Akiyama, head of global communications at DeNA (pronounced DNA), one of the companies responsible for fulfilling the vision for bringing self-driving taxis to Tokyo streets, a project known as Robot Taxi.
Full speed ahead for tailored taxi tech
Abe publicly pledged his support to Robot Taxi last November and the government has been "very, very helpful," according to Akiyama. The question is now whether self-driving taxis could be to Japan in 2020 what the bullet train was to the country back in 1964.
"Today's transportation infrastructure was built around this era, and we think the next 2020 Olympics will be such a good opportunity and a good reason for Japanese industries to unite and bring about huge change," said Akiyama speaking to CNET at DeNA's Tokyo headquarters.
On a cloudless day, with far-reaching views over Yoyogi Park north towards the towering skyscrapers of Shinjuku, DeNA seems in an enviable position. The startup is busy developing some of the coolest software to come out of Japan in recent years, including Nintendo's Miitomo social network, and now, the service and operations elements of Robot Taxi.
The venture is a collaboration with Japanese robotics company ZMP, which has been working to develop self-driving car technology since 2009. ZMP is not alone in doing this. The difference between it and direct rivals like Uber, which is supposed to start testing its own driverless taxi service later this month, is that it is home-grown and highly tailored with the support of Japan's government and regulators.
The technology also differs from methods being developed by car manufacturers because it's not brand-specific and can be retrofitted to any vehicle. For the Robot Taxi trials conducted between February and March on public roads in Fujisawa, a couple of hours south of Tokyo, drivers sat in a Toyota Estima (otherwise known as a Previa). It could have been any car, Akiyama said.
Rather than aim for the semi-autonomous driverless cars that will start appearing on the roads over the next few years, Robot Taxi is shooting for full automation that won't require a driver to be present at all.
Olympic ambitions for social change
The Olympics will serve as the vehicle for getting the tech on the streets, but the real target audience is not sports fans navigating the streets of downtown Tokyo, but those living out in the sticks who might be less able to otherwise get themselves around.
DeNA is keen to use the technology to help Japan's aging population get around. Many of the people residing in rural Japan belong to older generations and find themselves in increasingly isolated areas, where they face reduced or even discontinued public transportation service.
"They don't even have taxi drivers," he said. "So for people in that kind of area, this project seems very appealing."
One major factor measured by DeNA in the initial driverless taxi trials was public acceptance of the technology. To ensure the aging population's opinion was taken into account, over 40 percent of participants were 61 or older. The results of the trial showed the participants felt positive about the experience, with the only criticism being the cars tended to be overly cautious.
Another challenge for DeNA in getting its Robot Taxis on the road is regulation.
One major roadblock is the Geneva Convention of Road Traffic, which Japan has ratified. Article 8 of the convention states: "Every vehicle or combination of vehicles proceeding as a unit shall have a driver," which could cause problems for driverless cars.
DeNA is working with regulators and the government to find a way around the restrictions, which have not so far prevented the trials from taking place. One answer could be to follow in the footsteps of Finland, which is arguing that a competent computer program is, in effect, "a driver."
"It's kind of open to interpretation, but we want to make sure that we aren't breaking rules," said Akiyama.
Widespread use of the taxis on public roads is not the priority, though. Expanding the reach of the Robot Taxi service to wider Japan isn't supposed to take place until after the 2020 games. The plan for now is to ensure it is capable of ferrying foreign visitors who might not speak the language between Olympic venues.
"It's much more realistic right now to think, to let it operate in certain limited areas," said Akiyama. "But who knows -- it really depends on how much the regulation permits it and the technology has caught up with it."