Transport ministry developing self-driving snowplows to offset driver shortage

JIJI

The transport ministry will speed up work to develop snow removal vehicles with self-driving technology so trials can be carried out on expressways starting this winter, officials have said.

The ministry plans to test the vehicles on other public roads from fiscal 2018, using data from the Michibiki quasi-zenith satellite network behind Japan’s version of the Global Positioning System set to debut in April.

The use of snow removal vehicles requires skilled drivers, but most are getting too old, and the shortage is generating concerns.

In fiscal 2015, people over 61 accounted for 19 percent of the drivers, up from 3 percent in 1998.

Snow removal vehicles with self-driving technology will detect obstacles with sensors and warn drivers when they deviate from lanes or approach guardrails.

The ministry hopes to soon start trials on expressways, where there are fewer obstacles than on other public roads, the officials said.

From fiscal 2018, the ministry will carry out demonstration tests on general public roads with manholes, intersections and pedestrians, the officials said.

The vehicles will have three-dimensional maps based on data from the Michibiki network, allowing them to pinpoint the vehicles’ locations during snow removal.

“Conventional snow removal vehicles are usually manned by two people,” a ministry official said. “We want to reduce their workloads by introducing obstacle-detecting functions so we can eventually develop vehicles that require only one person.”