SoftBank has stepped up its push to become a leading player in the driverless technology space, with an announcement that it will roll out self-driving buses in Japan from April this year.

The initiative is being led by SB Drive Corp. (“SB Drive”), a joint venture formed in April 2016 between SoftBank and Advanced Smart Mobility Co., Ltd. (an Japanese R&D company). Yahoo Japan has also invested JPY 490 million (US$4.4 million) into this joint venture.

SB Drive was formed to explore and test whether self-driving technologies logistics could viably be utilised for;

  1. community mobility services on certain routes and;
  2. businesses that use ordered and autonomous vehicles to transport passengers.

SB Drive has been able to realise this goal with its driverless buses, by combining Advanced Smart Mobility Co., Ltd.’s self-driving technology with SoftBank knowledge of telecommunications infrastructure, data analytics, and data security. Yahoo Japan’s investment into the joint venture has also allowed SB Drive to benefit from the use of Yahoo Maps and its related data, including information regarding weather conditions, traffic build up and pedestrian traffic. This data further enhanced SB Drive’s bus deployment analysis, as well as other components of the initiative.

These self-driving buses, provided by a French start up, Navya, will service a 2.5km route in Sakai from April this year. This initial pilot program will last for five years, has been allocated a 520 million yen (US$4.7 million) budget by the regional government, and will be free for passengers to use during this time.

These self-driving buses, provided by a French start up, Navya, will service a 2.5km route in Sakai from April this year. This initial pilot program will last for five years, has been allocated a 520 million yen (US$4.7 million) budget by the regional government, and will be free for passengers to use during this time.

Until amendments to the Road Traffic Act which will allow Level 3 automated vehicles on public roads come into effect in May this year (see here), only Level 2 automated vehicles are currently permitted in Japan. To get around these regulatory restrictions, and have its buses classified as level 2 vehicles, SoftBank has included additional safety features into the vehicles, including a specifically designated seat for a staff member that can manually override the self-driving feature in case of emergency. However, SoftBank claims that it can modify the buses in future in order to operate as Level 4 vehicles; capable of performing all driving tasks in certain environments without human intervention.

Japan is seen as an ideal country to introduce self-driving buses as it has an extensive road network and an aging population that heavily relies on public transport to commute between places, especially in more remote areas. Over recent years, it has become apparent that it is becoming less economically viable for bus companies to service these regional areas, with less and less Japanese bus companies reporting profits. As such, the introduction of self-driving buses offers the possibility of reduced operating costs and a sustainable solution to issues regarding access to transport in regional areas.

 

David Gilmore
David Gilmore
Managing Partner, Japan & South Korea
+81 3 5412 5415
James Allsop
James Allsop
Senior Associate, Tokyo
+81 3 5412 5409
Siobhan Lane
Siobhan Lane
Graduate Solicitor, Tokyo
+81 3 5412 5427