A Robot Shuttle for Seniors? Japan’s Rural Experiment
Japan is facing all the same demographic shifts as the US and many other countries: a rapidly aging population with fewer and fewer caregivers to take care of the aged. Japan just happens to be facing these demographic challenges sooner than most. The upside? They are ahead of the curve in piloting driverless technology as a means of senior transport, and the government is ready to provide infrastructure support for the private enterprise.
Japan is starting to experiment with self-driving buses in rural communities such as Nishikata, 115 km (71 miles) north of the capital, Tokyo, where elderly residents struggle with fewer bus and taxi services as the population ages and shrinks.
The swift advance of autonomous driving technology is prompting cities such as Paris and Singapore to experiment with such services, which could prove crucial in Japan, where populations are not only greying, but declining, in rural areas. Japan could launch self-driving services for remote communities by 2020, if the trials begun this month prove successful.
The government plans to turn highway rest stops into hubs from which to ferry the elderly to medical, retail and banking services.
One of the companies tackling senior mobility is DeNA Co., an internet and mobile game provider. They recently began a pilot testing their “Robot Shuttle,” pictured above driving past rice stalks in Nishikata town, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan.
[The] initial trials of the firm’s driverless six-seater Robot Shuttle, elderly residents of Nishikata, in Japan’s Tochigi prefecture, were transferred between a service area and a municipal complex delivering healthcare services.
The town mirrors Japan’s population profile, with roughly a third of its 6,300 residents aged 65 or more, up from about a quarter four years ago, while the population overall has shrunk 4.5 percent.
The test also checked the vehicle’s operational safety in road conditions ranging from puddles to fallen debris, and if those crossing its path would react to the warning it emits.
The ride, at a speed of about 10 kph (6 mph), felt comfortable and safe, said test participant Mieko Shimazaki, 71, but her 72-year-old husband, Susumu, wanted more speed.
“Self-driving cars could be useful in the future, but I’d like to see them go faster, at least 40 kph (25 mph).”