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Maebashi set to test autonomous buses on city roads, eyes 2018 introduction

The bus set to be used for an autonomous vehicle test in Maebashi is seen in this photo provided by Gunma University.

MAEBASHI -- An autonomous bus could be rolling down one of this city's main streets come spring under a test program led by Gunma University and the municipal government here.

According to the university, if all goes well the hands-free vehicles will be in regular service in about a year, making Maebashi host to Japan's first autonomous buses operating on public roads.

"It's an urgent task to guarantee means of transportation as society ages," said a Maebashi municipal representative. "We can also reduce the load on drivers with the introduction of autonomous vehicle technology, and help people with limited mobility."

The about 1-kilometer test route runs along a pre-existing shuttle bus line connecting JR Maebashi Station and Jomo Electric Railway Co.'s Chuo-Maebashi Station. For the first round of on-road tests beginning in November, the project group -- which also includes NTT Data Corp. and Maebashi-based Nippon Chuo Bus Co. -- will use a regular passenger car equipped with autonomous vehicle technology. From April 2018, the group will put a bus retrofitted with an autonomous driving system on the route. The test bus will not carry passengers, but will instead be used to confirm the vehicle's safety and collect data on features along the road such as buildings and roadside trees. Starting from November 2018, the test buses will have passengers on board.

Furthermore, though the bus is designed to run without human intervention, there will still be a driver behind the wheel who can take control if the vehicle is about to get into an accident. However, "the ultimate goal is for the bus to operate without a driver," a Gunma University project team member said.

Autonomous cars are still not recognized under Japan's Road Traffic Act or the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which sets common standards among signatory nations. However, driverless vehicles and artificial intelligence hold pride of place in the central government's cutting-edge tech growth strategy, which includes a 2020 deadline for the practical implementation of autonomous vehicle-based transportation systems. This push to get driverless vehicles on the road has jumpstarted local test projects across Japan.

"If we can move forward with autonomous driving systems, then we'll advance to vehicles without drivers," said Takeki Ogitsu, an associate professor of intelligent machine development and deputy head of Gunma University's next-generation mobility implementation research center. "We're preparing for that now, building up the necessary knowhow."

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