DeNA, ZMP plan to launch driverless taxi service


Staff Writer

As the IT revolution injects extra octane into the auto industry with driverless technology, DeNA Co. said Thursday it will steer toward an innovative new target: robot taxis.

Best known for its Mobage cellphone video game platform, DeNA said it will team up with ZMP Inc., a developer of automated driving technologies, and set up a joint venture called Robot Taxi on Friday.

“The auto industry is so huge . . . about ¥50 trillion in all, the biggest industry in Japan. This is very attractive to DeNA,” said DeNA executive Hiroshi Nakajima at a news conference in Tokyo. Both DeNA and ZMP are based in the capital.

Nakajima, who will head up the new firm, said the auto industry is facing a belated IT revolution as technologies like automated driving and networked cars come of age following years of development.

He predicted that software services will become a more critical element of vehicles from now on, just as the mobile phone industry now offers handsets that vary little in appearance and function but whose apps are seen as key.

“Right now, people are watching companies competing in developing automated driving technology, but this technology has already been demonstrated around the world, so it will come into practical use. Looking further ahead, the focus of competition will be on what experience a user is offered,” said Nakajima.

The driverless cabs will be dispatched in response to smartphone requests, the same way subscribers to the taxi-hailing app Uber secure rides in many nations worldwide.

Nakajima said ZMP will develop the automated driving technology while DeNA works on the software, including the hailing app and the in-vehicle user interface. This dovetails with DeNA’s existing expertise in developing video game interfaces.

Challenges will include licensing driverless vehicles on public roads. The Road Traffic Act would need to be revised, since the current law does not anticipate unmanned control of a vehicle.

DeNA appears to be aware of the challenges and did not specify when it might be able to launch the service. Moreover, Nakajima admitted the company has not yet fleshed out the business model.

But he said the firm hopes to have some driverless vehicles in operation by the time Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics.

ZMP President Hisashi Taniguchi said Japan needs to speed up efforts to adapt regulations to evolving technologies; otherwise, he said, it will prevent the country from realizing its full potential by the Olympics and curb the growth of the auto industry.