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Japan city pilots AI system to sort out taxi-sharing, smooth way for tourists

Taxi drivers receive directions from the AI on this tablet computer. The tablet can display the customer's desired pick-up time and location, plus their destination and the number of passengers. (Mainichi/Azusa Hinata)

KANAZAWA -- Artificial intelligence will get you there.

That's the idea behind a Kanazawa Municipal Government-backed trial of an AI-based taxi-sharing system, designed to make it easier and more efficient for both passengers -- foreign and domestic -- and drivers to get around this city on the Sea of Japan. Local authorities are also hoping it will become another transport option for people in areas of the municipality where public transportation services are sparse.

Kanazawa, capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, is partnering with Hakodate, Hokkaido-based tech startup Mirai Share Co. and other organizations on the project, which had a test run on Sept. 21.

To use the system, customers download a dedicated app they can use to specify a pick-up time and place as well as their destination and the number of passengers. The AI then sends these details to a tablet in the taxi best positioned to fill the request. It will also compile several reservations for a single driver and set out the best pick-up and drop-off route.

The application is furthermore available in several languages, so a foreign tourist can order a taxi and get all the way to the place they need to go without having to converse with the driver. During the trial, passengers could use participating taxis as often as they liked for a flat one-day fee of 1,000 yen (about $9.20).

An Italian tourist is seen in a taxi dispatched by the AI system. (Mainichi/Azusa Hinata)

"It's difficult to use the buses in a city you're visiting for the first time," said a 31-year-old Italian resident of Tokyo's Setagaya Ward. He is fluent in Japanese, so the language barrier was not a concern, but "the app is very easy to use so it helped a lot" to get around Kanazawa.

One 55-year-old taxi driver participating in the trial praised the app for eliminating his worries about communicating with passengers, but also noted that the AI "tends to direct you onto congested or narrow roads, so I usually just use the streets I normally do. It's really only good as a reference."

According to the Kanazawa city government's industry policy section, 35 groups of foreigners totaling 80 people used the app during the Sept. 21 trial, and most of them were happy with the service. Improvements to the system including real-time updates on traffic snarls are expected to be made in time for another test day in January next year.

The city of Ina in central Japan's Nagano Prefecture has tested a similar system for taxis and community buses, with a full roll-out planned for fiscal 2021, and it is just one of many local governments experimenting with the technology.

Taxi-sharing has until now been governed by the Road Transportation Act, but a central government committee on future-oriented investment suggested in March this year that restrictions be lifted.

The aging population and emptying out of the countryside has meant many local public transportation bodies have halted operations, increasing attention on taxi-sharing as a more efficient mode of transport.

(Japanese original by Azusa Hinata, Hokuriku General Bureau)

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