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Autonomous taxi trial carrying passengers begins in Tokyo

A passenger-carrying autonomous taxi leaves Tokyo's Otemachi district during a test run on a public road on Aug. 27, 2018. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A venture firm and a major taxi company on Monday began a trial of passenger-carrying autonomous taxi services with an eye on launching the full service around 2020 when Tokyo hosts the Olympics and the Paralympics.

ZMP Inc., a Tokyo-based developer of autonomous driving technology, and Hinomaru Kotsu Co., said they are the first in the world to offer autonomous taxi services to fare-paying passengers in the test through Sept. 8.

The initiative comes as automakers and other businesses at home and abroad compete in the development of autonomous vehicles. General Motors Co. and Waymo, a spinoff of tech giant Google, have started tests on public roads in the United States, while Nissan Motor Co. and DeNA Co. conducted tests on a ride-hailing service in Yokohama, near Tokyo, in March.

In the trial by ZMP and Hinomaru, a minivan equipped with sensors and other autonomous technologies makes four round-trips a day on a busy 5.3-kilometer route between commercial facilities in Tokyo's Otemachi and Roppongi districts.

The autonomous technology will start, stop and turn the vehicle but a driver and an assistant will be on board to ensure safety. Passengers will unlock the door and make payments through a smartphone app, paying 1,500 yen (about $13) for a one-way ride.

Passengers were chosen in advance with about 1,500 people competing for just 96 rides, underscoring the high public interest in the technology.

A 45-year-old male passenger from Tokyo's Toshima Ward who got in the first autonomous taxi on Monday morning said, "It was such a natural ride that I almost forgot it was a self-driving car. I felt the advancement of technology."

A Kyodo News reporter who went on a test ride near the Imperial Palace on Saturday also said the driving was remarkably smooth overall, particularly when merging into traffic and turning at an intersection.

But he also said he felt there was room for improvement in other areas, noting that the braking was somewhat abrupt causing his body to lean forward when the vehicle came to a complete stop.

In a ceremony marking the trial, Hinomaru Kotsu President Kazutaka Tomita said, "We can take a precious step forward (for autonomous driving) today."

Autonomous driving services are viewed as a way to address the shortage of drivers in Tokyo and the increasing demand for taxis among foreign visitors to Japan.

The companies plan to hold test drives on a second route later this year, connecting Haneda airport and central Tokyo.

Hopes for self-driving taxis are also high in rural areas, where many taxi companies have been going out of business due to aging drivers as well as a decline in the number of people joining the industry, according to industry experts.

Hinomaru and ZMP said they plan to ask local taxi firms facing shortages of drivers to form a syndicate with them, a move aimed at reducing the cost of introducing the new system.

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