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Tokyo taxi firm sets the stage for a driverless fleet for 2020 Olympics

Deadlines linked to autonomous-car technology are tossed around like balls in a bingo spinner, with no one really sure when driverless cars will hit the streets in a meaningful way.

What is clear is that a huge global event can focus the minds of those developing such technology, with Tokyo-based robotics outfit ZMP and local taxi firm Hinomaru Kotsu determined to have a robot taxi service up and running in time for the Japan-hosted Olympics in 2020. Hinomaru inked a deal with ZMP last year, and the partnership is already producing results.

Earlier this week the team debuted its autonomous taxi service for paying passengers as part of a trial set to run for several weeks.

A demonstration in front of the media showed a young family boarding the robot minivan for a three-mile ride along some busy Tokyo streets. Passengers access the taxi using a smartphone and a QR code, and once everyone’s inside, a quick tap on a touchscreen begins the journey.

Footage shows the autonomous cab appearing to cope comfortably with the road conditions, though had the technology experienced any difficulties, a safety driver was on hand to take over.

Speaking to a TV crew after the ride, one of the passengers noted that a human-driven vehicle perceived to be “behaving strangely” prompted the safety driver to manually guide the robot car away from potential danger.

The self-driving taxi is making eight trips a day between two destinations in the city, each journey costing riders about $14. More road tests are planned for later this year once the results of the current trial have been fully assessed.

Hinomaru wants to have its service ready in time for the Olympics, which starts two years from now. Besides transporting sports fans around the sprawling city, the plan is to use the cars to run athletes between hotels and venues, too.

ZMP and Hinomaru say its robot taxi is the first in the world to accept paying passengers, though Lyft and Aptiv may have a word to say about that. The ridesharing firm has been working with tech firm Aptiv to develop its own robot taxi, and began taking fare-paying passengers in Las Vegas, Nevada a couple of months back.

Robot taxi services have emerged as the main focus for many companies currently developing the technology, with Toyota, as one example, this week announcing a $500 million investment in Uber’s autonomous-vehicle development. Japanese car giant Nissan is also working on developing a driverless vehicle that it wants to have ready in time for Tokyo 2020 as part of a taxi service.

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