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Japan's first full-scale autonomous car service to begin in aging village

A self-driving vehicle is seen during a long-term experiment carried out by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in the village of Kamikoani, Akita Prefecture, on Dec. 9, 2018. The same car will be used for the full-scale autonomous transportation service that is set to start on Nov. 30, 2019. (Mainichi/Hikoshi Tamura)

KAMIKOANI, Akita -- The first full-scale autonomous transportation service of its kind in Japan is set to begin on Nov. 30 here in this shrinking northern village.

One small self-driving vehicle that can carry seven passengers will travel along three separate routes near the Kamikoani roadside rest area in the village of Kamikoani, Akita Prefecture.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), the three round-trip routes are: a 5-kilometer course that takes 43 minutes between Kosawada and Dogawa; a 4-kilometer journey that takes 35 minutes between Kosawada and Fukudate; and a 1.9-kilometer circuit of Kosawada that takes 20 minutes.

The vehicle, which looks rather like a golf cart, will detect magnetic strips embedded under the road where regular cars will be banned from entering, and travel at around 12 kilometers per hour. One paid volunteer in charge will ride the car, but won't drive it unless there is an emergency situation.

The automobile will run on each route once in the morning and once in the afternoon, charging 200 yen per ride. There are plans to connect a trailer to the self-driving vehicle by the end of fiscal 2019, allowing users to transport their baggage at an additional cost of 200 yen.

The service is operated by the nonprofit organization Kamikoani Iso Service Kyokai for residents of the hilly and mountainous areas here who face a shrinking and aging population, and where it is difficult to maintain public transport services. The organization aims to provide a transportation method as well as deliver crops and other daily sundries for the locals.

Across the country, the MLIT carried out short-term experiments in 18 locations between fiscal 2017 and 2018 and long-term tests in seven locations starting fiscal 2018. During a long-term experiment conducted in the village of Kamikoani from Dec. 9, 2018, to Feb. 8, 2019, a total of 210 people used the service out of the 520 residents in 223 households living along the route. Of these people, 70% were aged at least 60.

After some users pointed out it was cold riding in the vehicle as it does not have doors or windows, gaps between sheets of plastic attached to both sides of the car were sealed, and a battery-powered heater was installed.

Kamikoani mayor Yoshio Nakata stated, "With consideration for the residents' convenience, we would like to improve public transportation with the introduction of the service."

(Japanese original by Hikoshi Tamura, Noshiro Local Bureau)

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