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French company plans to test self-driving bus in Japan this spring

A driverless bus developed by the French venture company Navya is seen here in Las Vegas in January 2017. (Mainichi)

LAS VEGAS -- As the concept of self-driving vehicles becomes more of a reality, a French startup company announced on March 7 its plans to introduce a "self-driving bus" in Japan together with SoftBank Group Corp.

    The French startup, known as Navya, is aiming to bring its driverless bus to sites such as shopping centers, airports and university campuses in Japan, with the intention of delivering low-speed shuttle services that would run along fixed routes.

    With just three years to go until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the vice president of Navya, Henri Coron, has expressed his excitement over the innovative project, saying that the company aims to connect Tokyo subway stations with Olympic and Paralympic venues using its self-driving buses.

    In 2015, Navya completed manufacturing of its driverless bus, which can travel at a maximum speed of 45 kilometers per hour and carry up to 15 passengers. Currently, there are 30 Navya self-driving buses operating in a total of 7 countries, including France, the U.S. and Switzerland. With regard to the Japanese market, a SoftBank subsidiary has bought two buses from Navya, and plans to test them out in Japan this spring.

    In some ways, Navya's driverless bus is different to self-driving vehicles being developed by conventional car makers. In order to introduce self-driving cars to the market, there is a need to deliver sophisticated technology that can ensure that the vehicle will always handle its ever-changing surroundings well even when driving in unfamiliar locations.

    However, in the case of Navya, once the fixed route has been mastered by an operator during a test run, the driverless bus will then remember the exact route. In the event that an unexpected object does suddenly obstruct the route of the bus, the vehicle will pick up on this using its sensors, and an automatic brake will be applied.

    Presently, although driverless vehicles are not allowed to be used on public roads in Japan under the Road Traffic Act, they can be used on private land. However, Coron says with the Navya driverless bus, the risk of accidents is low because it travels along a fixed route and it should be easy to obtain permission from the government to use their product on public roads.

    With relatively low development costs, Navya plans to offer its self-driving bus service at a total cost of about 40,000 euros per year (approximately 4.8 million yen). The company is expecting global demand for tens of thousands of its self-driving buses.

    In Japan, one company making considerable progress in the field of driverless vehicles is DeNA Co. In August 2016, the company tested out a driverless bus service in a park in Chiba -- together with the French venture company EasyMile -- transporting approximately 1,600 passengers. Looking ahead, DeNA aims to introduce a driverless bus service at Kyushu University's Ito campus in Fukuoka during the first half of fiscal 2018.

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