self driving car

Photo Cred: Bloomua via Shutterstock.

After much show but largely inaction on the consumer front, Japan’s Robot Taxi is the first to designate a deadline and a region for its self-driving car ambitions.

As per a recent report by The Wall Street Journal, Robot Taxi will start testing robotic taxis in 2016, offering the service to 50 people in Kanagawa, located south of Tokyo. The cabs will drive only three kilometres, hitting major roads in the city. Crew (read: humans) will be aboard the cars to oversee the process.

Robot Taxi is the brainchild of Japanese mobile Internet company DeNA Co. and Tokyo-based vehicle technology developer ZMP.

Early last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also announced (paywall) his plans for self-driving cars to hit the road by the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, at the opening session of the Science and Technology in Society forum in Kyoto.

The development assumes significance at a time when Google is making progress on its ambitious driverless car project. Last week, the search engine giant showcased and demonstrated its self-driving car to the press.

Google’s self-driving prototype, designed to take passengers where they want to go at the push of a button, is meant to be ready by 2020 for the general market, albeit it is unclear if federal regulations in the US will aid or prevent this endeavour.

In terms of what Google’s exploration with self-driving cars holds next, the official website for the project states: “We’d also like to run small pilot programmes with our prototypes to learn what people would like to do with vehicles like these. . . We’re going to learn a lot from our testing in the coming years, including how people might like to use self-driving technology in their daily lives. If the technology develops as we hope, we’ll work with partners to bring this technology into the world safely.”

But it is not just tech companies that are jumping on board self-driving cars. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick recently said that self-driving cars could help reduce the 30,000 annual deaths on US roads, and has been clear about his interest in exploring the possibilities of eliminating human error. (Worth remembering is that Google Ventures, the startup financing arm of the search engine, had invested US$250 million in Uber in 2013). Both have much to gain from a business standpoint.

Luxury car maker Mercedez-Benz also gets in the game and debuted a concept car representing the future of autonomous vehicles in March of this year, demonstrating that functionality doesn’t need to come at the expense of aesthetics.

While there has been no shortage of research and exploration into the societal benefits that roll in with self-driving cars, Robot Taxi’s new initiative, in conjunction with Japan’s willing government, is something tangible and ready for consumption — albeit on a limited offering basis.

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Robot Taxi could have a significant impact on society, reducing accidents, building trust in technology (i.e. letting in AI), with very tangible results of offering a solution to shuttling around Japan’s high, unattended population of senior citizens.