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Panasonic proposes next-gen transport with self-driving cars

Low-speed electric vehicles will take seniors shopping

A Panasonic mock-up of an automated car. The company has been testing self-driving tech in Japan for low-speed local transport applications.
A Panasonic mock-up of an automated car. The company has been testing self-driving tech in Japan for low-speed local transport applications.   © Reuters

OSAKA -- Panasonic aims to offer various services with autonomous electric cars, including ferrying elderly people in depopulated areas, teaming with startups to dive into next-generation transport services as consumers shift toward using vehicles rather than owning them.

The Japanese electronics company hopes to enter the realm known as "mobility as a service" with low-speed vehicles by 2030, drawing on its experience making batteries for U.S. electric-vehicle maker Tesla. It will independently develop a platform as a basis for vehicles that can carry passengers or cargo, and team up with electric-car startups to develop and produce body components.

The market for services related to next-generation transportation -- including the seamless interconnecting of transport modes like trains and cars -- is expected to soon expand rapidly as notions of car ownership change. Panasonic's compatriots Toyota Motor and SoftBank Group announced a tie-up in the same field earlier this month.

With automakers holding the lead in highway-oriented automated-driving pursuits, Panasonic narrowed its focus to low-speed transport with a goal of pulling ahead in self-driving tech for urban areas -- a field expected to see rapid growth beginning around 2030.

Besides providing transportation for elderly people who have trouble doing errands such as shopping on their own, another potential application of the tech is joining with logistics companies and municipalities to make home parcel deliveries from nearby distribution centers. Panasonic is developing such services as a pillar of its medium-term plan for auto-related businesses, alongside batteries.

The company is building experience in the field with test runs at home. Last October, it began testing self-driving miniature electric vehicles in Fukui Prefecture. This March, it took to public roads in Kyoto Prefecture to try out automated golf cars in cooperation with partners including transport company Keihan Bus.

The market for mobility as a service will be worth $1.4 trillion in the U.S., European Union and China by 2030, estimates consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Toyota and SoftBank will set up a joint venture for mobility services through their partnership announced Oct. 4, with an eye to developing businesses related to self-driving cars and other next-generation vehicles. With Honda Motor and General Motors also teaming up on self-driving tech, the competitive landscape for next-generation transportation services looks set to grow even harsher.

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