Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

29 May 2015

The days of bantering with taxi drivers could be over if two Japanese companies have their way. At a press conference in Tokyo yesterday, Dena and ZMP announced their plan to develop a driverless taxi service. The joint venture, which is launching today, is called Robot Taxi, and if it all goes smoothly there could be cars without drivers on the streets of Tokyo in time for the 2020 Olympics.

At the announcement yesterday, Hiroshi Nakajima from Dena, who will run the new operation, said technologies that have been in development for years are about to revolutionise the car industry. Since driverless-car technology already exists, the time has come to bring it out of the lab and into the real world.

Dena, which is best known as a social-media and video-game platform, will work on software such as the all-important hailing system while its partner ZMP, which has been working on autonomous cars since 2008, will focus on making the vehicles function properly. Nakajima predicts that since everyone is using the same basic robotic driving technology, the edge will come – just as it does in the mobile-phone industry – in innovative software and “user experience”.

The race to put driverless car technology into action is now on with everyone from Uber to the Chinese search engine Baidu in the running. Nissan plans to start selling autonomous cars by 2020 but the world’s biggest car company, Toyota, has said although it has the technology it believes that humans have an important role to play in road safety and won’t be developing a fully driverless car.

Of course, there are many obstacles to overcome before the Robot Taxi service goes into action and they’re not simply technological. The question of licensing driverless vehicles has yet to be tackled and traffic laws would have to be changed since they were written long before anybody envisaged a time when cars would be operated by robots.

It all sounds very sci-fi and a touch soulless. As Nakajima said yesterday, the image of Olympic athletes being transported to events in robot taxis would be a powerful showcase for Japanese technology. It’s just too bad they’ll be missing out on those obligatory discussions about the best route or politics or even the weather.

Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.

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