At first blush, it may seem that the target demographic of driverless cars would be tech-savvy millennials. But in Japan, where a burgeoning proportion of the population falls more solidly in the geriatric classification, there’s a new use for self-driving cars. The island nation has begun experiments involving self-driving buses in rural communities to help its aging populace stay mobile connected.
The first of these autonomous buses is being rolled out in Nishikata, a small rice-farming town about 71 miles north of the capital city of Tokyo. the town is inhabited largely by older residents (about a third of its 6,300 inhabitants are age 65 or older), and the number of public transport and taxi options have decreased over the last several years, leaving many of the city’s denizens high and dry.
The introduction of driverless shuttle buses is aimed at bringing these services to an increasing number of cities and helping transport aging Japanese to and from medical, retail, and banking services that they would otherwise have trouble accessing. Should initial trials prove successful, these autonomous vehicles could be widely disseminated in remote communities within the next three years.
“Smaller towns in Japan are graying even faster than cities, and there are just not enough workers to operate buses and taxis,” said Hiroshi Nakajima of mobile gaming software maker turned automotive software manufacturer DeNA, in an interview with Reuters. “But there are a lot of service areas around the country, and they could serve as a hub for mobility services.”
The prototype of the driverless bus in Nishikata features six seats and would ferry people between a service area and a health care provider. It goes just 6 miles per hour, making safety its first priority. And thus far, it seems to be serving a very relevant purpose.
“I worry about not being able to go out when I’m no longer able to drive,” one test rider, Shizu Yuzawa, told Reuters, noting that she would be happy to use the autonomous service. “As people in towns become older and younger people move away, it’s going to become more difficult to get help getting around.”
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