Nissan and DeNA to launch self-driving taxi trial in Yokohama

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Nissan Motor Co. and mobile game-maker DeNA Co. said Friday that they will launch an autonomous-driving taxi service for a two-week experiment in Yokohama next month, with the participation of 300 groups of people who will be asked to give feedback after using the ride-hailing app.

The companies aim to officially launch a full service in the early 2020s.

The world has yet to see a hailing service for a self-driving taxi, so “we are going to learn about some of the things that maybe we can’t foresee without actual testing,” said Ogi Redzic, senior vice president of the existing alliance among Nissan, Renault SA of France and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., during a news conference in Yokohama.

The field experiment for the self-driving taxi service, which will be named Easy Ride, will take participants on a 4.5 kilometer electric vehicle tour around Nissan’s headquarters in the Minato Mirai area of Yokohama between March 5 and March 18. The route is fixed, but the users will go through the full process of hailing the car via an app and then setting a destination.

Although this is an autonomous driving experiment, someone will be sitting in the driver’s seat because an existing law bans driving without anyone in front of the wheel. But the person will just be seated there and let the car drive itself, the companies said.

The two firms said the test will also gauge users’ reactions to in-vehicle experiences and additional services, such as informing passengers about ongoing events and eateries around the area and handing out coupons for local stores.

Nissan and DeNA said details of the planned early 2020s launch are still undecided. The companies, however, emphasized that the project could help solve some problems involving Japan’s rapidly graying and shrinking population.

For example, Japan is seeing an increasing number of elderly people with difficulties walking and driving, while the logistics industry has been hit by a severe shortage of drivers recently, said DeNA President Isao Moriyasu.

Autonomous-driving technology combined with artificial intelligence and the internet can be a solution to these issues, he said.

“People often say that an autonomous-driving service would be the enemy of local transportation service operators, such as buses and cabs. But this is completely wrong as far as Easy Ride is concerned,” said Hiroshi Nakajima, a DeNA executive in charge of the automotive business.

He added that Easy Ride could help solve issues that transportation service operators are facing, such as a shortage of taxi drivers in provincial areas. He added that Nissan and DeNA have been discussing with taxi operators in Kanagawa Prefecture how they can mutually complement one another’s strengths to create a win-win situation.

DeNA began its self-driving-related business in 2015, and formed a partnership with Nissan last year after ending its earlier plan to run a robot taxi business with ZMP Inc., a Tokyo-based venture firm that has been developing self-driving technologies.

Tokyo-based DeNA is also teaming up with Yamato Transport Co. to launch unmanned parcel delivery services.

With the Easy Ride service, Nissan will develop self-driving vehicles while DeNA will mainly oversees service related matters such as app development.