SoftBank developing driverless buses in Japan

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SoftBank developing driverless buses in Japan

If you had to invent the perfect place to roll out self-driving buses, Japan would be it.

The country boasts an immaculate and extensive road network. Much of the aging population relies on public transport, especially in the countryside, to get around. And that customer base is shrinking; fewer passengers equals less fares. As a result, only a third of the country’s bus companies are profitable, forcing regional governments to step in to support them.

That’s why SoftBank Group is building driverless buses, which the Tokyo-based company estimates can cut operating costs by half. Unlike self-driving cars like those being developed by Uber and Google, buses follow predetermined routes and can get away with a lower level of machine intelligence. If SoftBank succeeds, its automated buses could be navigating streets as soon as 2019.

“Japan’s aging population is putting the country on the front line of a public transportation crisis,” said Yuki Saji, 31, chief executive officer of SB Drive, the SoftBank unit leading the project. “There is an opportunity for a rapid introduction of this technology.”

Introduced in April, SB Drive is a joint venture with Advanced Smart Mobility, a University of Tokyo artificial intelligence enterprise being led by a Toyota Motor veteran. With a prototype already navigating a closed course, four Japanese towns and cities have signed up to test the vehicles on actual bus routes as soon as next year.

SoftBank plans to sell the self-driving buses to cities and transit operators. It’s an opportunity to grab a piece of a broader market that’s projected to be worth as much as $77 billion by 2035. Bloomberg
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