TSUKUBA, Japan -- Toyota Motor is set to launch a pilot project testing a transportation system focusing on autonomous vehicles, in one of Japan's first such initiatives in a real-life setting over a wide area.
The company will team up with the University of Tsukuba and the government of the city, just north of Tokyo, to run the project.
Under the system envisioned, self-driving, single-seat electric vehicles will take passengers from their homes to the nearest bus stop, where they will be able to transfer to autonomous, fuel-cell powered buses.
The experiment, set for launch in fiscal 2019 and running until fiscal 2022, will test the feasibility of the relevant technologies in situations involving regular traffic.
One of the main aims of the project is to help resolve the issue of elderly citizens being isolated from their communities.
The number of such people is rising in Japan, especially in areas where public transportation systems have been downsized or axed. Many rural areas have seen their populations decline as the country ages.
There are several pedestrianized areas in central Tsukuba and around the university. The autonomous cars will take people living in nearby residential neighborhoods to designated bus stops.
The fuel-cell buses will run on fixed routes within the city, as well as making long-distance trips to destinations like Tokyo Station and Narita Airport.
The project also involves the production of hydrogen fuel for the buses from renewable energy sources and the construction of a pipeline system to supply fueling stations. It aims make operations as disaster-resistant as possible.
The organizers' initial priority will be to establish the technology to use artificial intelligence to forecast traffic congestion areas.
At first, cameras and sensors will be set up on vehicles and bus stops along a route around the city center and the university. The data collected, as well as information gathered by satellite, will be used to measure congestion, and AI technology will then be used to establish the quickest route for each bus.
Tsukuba's population of 200,000 is ideal for experimenting with transportation systems in both urban and rural settings.
In addition, the city is designated as an international strategic zone, which makes it easier to relax the necessary regulations to introduce such a system. Pilot projects for advanced transportation systems in Japan have so far typically been limited to smaller areas.
In the United States, similar self-driving projects have been conducted on a wider scale, for example in Silicon Valley and elsewhere California.