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Remotely monitored self-driving cars run on public road during test in Fukui Pref.

Two self-driving cars operated by a remote control system run on a public road at the same time during an experiment at the town of Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture, on Nov. 19, 2018. (Mainichi/Yoshinori Ogura)

EIHEIJI, Fukui -- Two self-driving cars operated by a remote control system ran on a public road here simultaneously during an experiment on Nov. 19.

According to those involved, this is the world's first remotely monitored self-driving car experiment involving two vehicles on a public road after a similar test was conducted at a park in Aichi Prefecture. They aim to put the system into practical use for elderly people and others sometime after 2020. The test was carried out by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, the Fukui Prefectural Government and other organizations.

For the test, four-seat and six-seat electric cars were prepared. Although people sat in the driver's seats, they never steered the vehicles nor applied the brakes except in emergencies. The cars completed several circuits over a 2-kilometer course at a speed up to 12 kilometers per hour. As the vehicles run over an electromagnetic line laid under the road surface, it is easy to confirm the road conditions and positions of the cars even in snow, according to people running the test.

The operator of the remote control cars monitored footage and audio sounds that were sent continually from cameras and microphones installed in the vehicles. The operator basically didn't take part in driving and only checked for safety when the vehicles passed each other, except for remotely slowing the vehicles when the system detected a pedestrian.

Self-driving cars are expected to serve as a means of mobility for elderly people to go shopping or carry out other activities in under-populated areas hit by a shortage of labor and an increase in public transportation costs -- a growing problem in Japan in recent years.

Commenting on the tests, Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hirofumi Takinami said, "Expectations are rising for the new technology."

(Japanese original by Yoshinori Ogura, Nagoya News Center)

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