A test of self-driving bus services organized by the transport ministry kicked off at a roadside rest area in Tochigi Prefecture on Saturday.

The ministry hopes to launch the autonomous bus services in fiscal 2020 to provide a means of transportation for elderly people living in hilly and mountainous areas with dwindling populations.

On Saturday, a ceremony to mark the launch of the test and a test-ride event were held in the city of Tochigi. Among the participants was transport minister Keiichi Ishii.

According to the ministry, 80 percent of the rest areas, known as michi no eki, are in hilly and mountainous areas. Of them, 40 percent are within about 1 km of municipal government offices or medical institutions.

The ministry hopes automated public transport services will help elderly people who have trouble visiting hospitals or shopping because they can no longer drive or their bus services have been canceled.

In Saturday’s test, three bus stops were set up along a 2-km route linking the Nishikata rest area, a municipal government branch with a clinic and a nearby community.

The test will check how the self-driving bus reacts to obstacles and other hazards, such as large puddles, along the route.

The bus, which seats about 10, was developed by mobile game operator DeNA Co. Equipped with a GPS system, the bus uses a sensor to determine its location while a camera detects obstacles in its path.

“The ride was comfortable,” one participant said, adding, “I also enjoyed the views from the large window.”

The test will end on Saturday, but the ministry plans to conduct similar tests in 12 other municipalities across the country this fiscal year.

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