Park tests new transit system

Unmanned buses promise to change concept of driving


AWAJI ISLAND, Hyogo Pref. — At first glance, the buses that carry visitors around the Awaji Farm Park look like any others.

Buses equipped with Toyota Motor Corp.’s Intelligent Multimode Transit System run on a special lane at Awaji Farm Park on Awaji Island, Hyogo Prefecture.

But visitors to the 54-hectare theme park on this island in Hyogo Prefecture are being given a taste of what is being touted the next generation in transport systems.

The unmanned buses, developed by Toyota Motor Corp., are guided by the Intelligent Multimode Transit System, a state-of-the-art data communications and vehicle control system.

The park’s buses, which started running in April and began unmanned operations this month, are one of the first examples of a national project known as Intelligent Transit System to be put into commercial use.

ITS was backed by the government and the private sector, including the nation’s major automakers. It promises to help reduce traffic congestion and accidents if it can be applied to public roads.

“We want the system to gain recognition as a new means of transportation,” said Yoshikazu Noguchi, general manager of Toyota’s ITS planning division.

ITS includes advanced car navigation systems, electronic toll collection and driver’s safety assistance, and is expected to change the whole concept of driving. Advanced navigation systems will guide cars to their final destinations, while tolls can be collected automatically via information stored on IC cards.

But the most striking feature promises to reduce accidents — magnetic lane markers in the road and special sensors on cars to help control distances between vehicles.

In the same manner, the IMTS buses that circle the 1,200-meter loop in the theme park are guided by magnetic lane markers and antennas installed along the circuit. The buses, with a maximum speed of 30 kph, take passengers between the Green Hill and England areas of the park in 90 seconds.

The entire operation, including starting and stopping and maintaining a set distance between the buses, is observed by only one person in a control room. The controller checks computer monitors that show images from cameras at the stations and sections of the loop.

Since the system requires fewer personnel, it can save on costs, according to Toyota.

Toyota’s Noguchi said that the buses are currently diesel powered, but the firm plans to introduce natural gas or hybrid buses as well as fuel-cell buses in the near future to make the system more environmentally friendly.

While research and development efforts by both the public and private sectors will continue to be necessary, IMTS buses can be applied to cities as well as rural areas to improve public transportation systems, Noguchi said. “There are many local governments who are interested in introducing this system.”

For the time being, Toyota will be introducing the system to other amusement facilities and events, including the international exposition scheduled for 2005, he said.