Business / Tech

CEATEC 2019 features driverless shuttle bus and avatar tech among exhibits

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

A compact driverless bus on Tuesday slowly shuttled a dozen passengers on public roads near the Makuhari Messe convention center in the city of Chiba to give them a sense of the steering wheel- and pedal-free future of transport.

One of the passengers, Noriyuki Sakayanagi, was amazed at the distance the bus traveled without a human driver.

“It wasn’t scary” to ride the bus on a public road, said Sakayanagi, who was attending the first day of CEATEC 2019, one of Japan’s biggest international digital trade shows that this year marks its 20th anniversary.

Sakayanagi, a 39-year-old company worker, added, “I thought more improvement in detecting traffic lights may be needed and the brakes were not so smooth.”

CEATEC organizers said this year’s four-day event has brought together 787 exhibitors from a broad spectrum of sectors — not only information technology and electronics but also finance, housing, travel and health care — with a vision toward a supersmart society designed to further economic growth and solve social problems.

Among them are 250 exhibitors from Switzerland, Russia, the United States, China, India and other countries and regions.

The autonomous shuttle demonstration featured an 11-seat vehicle developed by France’s Navya, which picked up visitors at a rotary and drove along the 1.5-kilometer-long route on a pre-determined schedule.

The vehicle’s owner, SB Drive Corp., a subsidiary of SoftBank Group Corp., provided the remote operation management system called Dispatcher to enable an on-time performance. The test ride conditions are close to a real world setting, SB Drive President and CEO Yuki Saji said.

The level-4 self-driving vehicle — the second-highest category — glides along at 18 kph while communicating with seven traffic lights along the route via the internet, and stops or proceeds in accordance with the signal.

“This is a first for us to drive a vehicle bearing a license plate without a steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedals on public roads while collaborating with traffic signals,” said Atsuto Suyama, the company’s chief technical officer and co-founder.

In the event of an emergency, the bus can be stopped through an onboard controller, Suyama said.

Aside from the bus test, a number of exhibitors are showcasing technologies related to autonomous driving.

Mitsubishi Electric Corp. has developed systems that allow the precise accuracy of location that is vital to safe driverless vehicles.

One of them draws on Japan’s network of quasi-zenith satellites that complement the U.S.-developed GPS to reduce the margin of error to centimeters, rather than meters.

The company, which was involved in the satellite development, offers receivers that can be mounted on cars, tractors, snowplows and drones.

Mitsubishi Electric is aiming to increase the number of satellites deployed to seven by fiscal 2023 from the current four.

Another exhibit is a three-dimensional mapping system equipped with a camera, laser and GPS antenna. Map data on highways, for example, include the number of lanes, the location of signs, speed limits, elevation — all things self-driving cars need to know.

To put it simply, Hiroyuki Ota, general manager at the company’s high-precision positioning systems department, said that mapping is like “creating a toy train track system that self-driving cars will stick to.”

CEATEC began in 2000 and has since scaled itself up as a consumer electronics trade fair.

In 2016, the event transitioned from that concept to become a comprehensive exhibition for a future tech-driven society.

A pillar of the new concept is creating business opportunities among exhibitors without industry boundaries.

This year’s event, which runs though Friday, is expected to attract 160,000 visitors over the four days, compared with 156,000 who attended last year.

The number of participating companies and organizations is an increase of 62 from last year. There has been a turnover of participants, and one notable absentee this year is Panasonic Corp., which decided not to have its own booth for the first time.

On the other hand, 304 exhibitors are here for the first time.

Among them is Japanese carrier ANA Holdings Inc., which is demonstrating avatar technology that allows people to communicate with others by controlling a robot in remote locations on a tablet device. The company plans to deploy 1,000 of the so-called newme avatar robots in places like department stores by next summer.

Sony Corp. has returned for the first time in six years, this time concentrating on medical and life science technologies instead of consumer electronics.

“Our exhibition focuses on the medical field represents our commitment to creating social values,” said Tokuro Terao, PR manager at Sony Imaging Products & Solutions Inc., a wholly owned Sony subsidiary.

He pointed to the display of the company’s surgical microscope and endoscope as examples of applying video camera technology used in consumer products for the betterment of society.

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