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Driverless bus trial set for Okinawa in late 2017

The roads of Okinawa Prefecture will play host to Japan's first ever trial of driverless buses starting in November this year, according to a recently finalized Cabinet Office plan.

The central government is looking to deploy automated transport services in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. If the Japanese GPS satellite network is employed, it will provide far more stable and accurate positioning data for the driverless buses than just the U.S. system -- a major advantage going forward.

The Michibiki No. 2, the second GPS satellite in the Cabinet Office's planned Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, was launched successfully in June this year, with the Michibiki No. 3 and No. 4 set to head into orbit this fiscal year. At least one of the four satellites will be above Japan at all times, while the system also promises positioning accuracy within a few centimeters -- a vast improvement over positioning data from the U.S. system, which can be as much as 10 meters off. The Cabinet Office plans to launch the four-satellite positioning service in April 2018.

The November driverless bus test will be conducted on major arteries including Okinawa's National Route 58, which runs the length of the Okinawan main island. The buses will also change lanes on public roads with multiple lanes running in the same direction -- a national first -- while also running at higher speeds than have previously been attempted. In addition to managing speed and steering, the driverless bus will also do its own braking in another first for a public road. Almost all the buses' functions will be automated, meaning the human driver's duties will be limited to safety checks and responding to emergencies.

In addition to increased safety and decreased costs, hopes are high that driverless buses will help alleviate urban road congestion and make up for the shortage of professional drivers in rural areas. Guaranteeing safety is one ongoing challenge for the practical implementation of driverless technology, but work continues to improve automated vehicles' ability to recognize obstructions.

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