As South Australia prepares to kick off the southern hemisphere’s first driverless vehicle tests in November, neighbouring Japan is readying its own autonomous car trial, focused specifically on the needs of its elderly citizens.
That focus may prove a clever starting point, with September 2014 government data revealing that around 33 percent of Japan’s population is aged over 60 - compared to roughly 11 percent of the Australian population.
Incredibly, Japan also has more than 60,000 citizens aged over 100, while only 4250 Australians can make the same claim.
To address the commuting needs of its senior citizens, Japan’s cabinet office and the local Kanagawa prefecture have partnered with Robot Taxi Inc for a driverless vehicle pilot program that will kick off in 2016.
Around 50 people will be offered the opportunity to participate in short-distance trips of around 3.2 kilometres at a time.
A Robot Taxi specialist will be on hand during all rides, ready to take back control from the autonomous system if needed, while also reporting on the vehicle’s performance and the comfort of its elderly passengers.
The company hopes to broaden its service over the coming years, with a view to going fully operational in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.
The nation’s government has high hopes for the program and, perhaps unlike western markets - where fiercely independent motorists may take more convincing - the already robo-obsessed Japanese are expected to embrace the technology.
Much of Japan’s well-known enthusiasm for robotics is driven by popular culture: while Hollywood movies often depict robots as murderous machines out to wipe out humankind (with a few noteable exceptions like Short Circuit’s Jonny Five and Star Trek’s Data), Japanese films and animation tend to portray futuristic technology as companionable assistants.
And, unlike the experiences of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character Douglas Quaid in the 1990 film Total Recall, Robot Taxi’s equivalent to Johnny Cab (below) is unlikely to harbour an unpredictably psychotic personality.
Wisely, Robot Taxi has released a new video (top of article) that depicts the idyllic rural Japan of 2020, with an elderly couple picked up from their home.
The vehicle is described in the Japanese narration as something of a trusted community member - again touching on the nation’s shared love for technology - helping commuters that can no longer drive to remain active and mobile.
Are Australian motorists likely to view robocabs as kindly? Time will tell, but with around 40,000 of our current population are expected to live past 100, driverless vehicles - both as part of and operating alongside a strong public transport infrastructure - could prove popular in the decades ahead.