Business / Tech

Robot-maker ZMP targets tractors, taxis and carts for elderly

by Osamu Tsukimori

Staff Writer

Robot-maker ZMP Inc. is aiming to launch the first commercial level 3 automated bus operation in Japan at an airport in 2020.

The Tokyo-based startup, which bills itself as the “robot of everything,” has built a variety of contraptions ranging from delivery robots to autonomous forklifts. It plans to start marketing Japan’s first fully autonomous single-seat electric vehicle, the Robocar Walk, in May, founder and CEO Hisashi Taniguchi said.

Taniguchi expanded on his plans during a recent interview. Here’s what he said.

Is it true ZMP is targeting a level 4 automated driving business by the Olympics?

Yes, we are aiming for commercial operation of an unmanned level 4 autonomous vehicle.

We have already conducted a demonstration of a level 3 electric bus in a restricted area of Chubu (Centrair International Airport) in Aichi Prefecture, with a driver present for emergency purposes. The bus has cleared the government exam and our joint venture with Marubeni Corp. has been working with Centrair to launch unmanned services with the bus in 2020. If it happens, it will mark the first commercial operation of level 3 technology at a Japanese airport.

We are also aiming to begin an experimental demonstration of level 3 towing tractors at Narita International Airport and Kansai International Airport in 2020. I hear the worker shortage is severe in ground-handling services at airports because it’s cold in winter and hot in the summer.

Your company has been researching unmanned taxis to ease the labor shortage as well. When will that goal be achieved?

In 2018 we tested the world’s first passenger-carrying autonomous taxi service on public roads as part of a joint demonstration with domestic cab company Hinomaru Kotsu Co. A driver was present to help in case of emergencies.

We also held Japan’s first demonstration of a remote-controlled driverless car in 2017 at slow speeds. But current law does not anticipate unmanned control of cars in general, and I expect it will take years to cultivate people’s understanding of autonomous cars before putting them into practical use.

In January we will be showcasing the Mobility as a Service experiment using a smartphone app that will combine the services of an airport shuttle bus, an autonomous taxi and an autonomous single-seat vehicle called Robocar Walk to achieve smooth travel from the airport to stores in the Marunouchi district near Tokyo Station.

What inspired you to pursue unmanned taxi services?

I began researching autonomous driving in 2009, a year after I heard about a hypothesis that cars would become robots some day.

In 2014, I went back home for homecoming. My home is a temple in Himeji, and I tried to go back via taxi from a local station, but the local taxi firms had gone out of business due to aging drivers and a chronic labor shortage. That was when I came up with the concept of an unmanned taxi service and launching a joint road test with Aichi Prefecture and Nagoya University.

Could you tell us about Robocar Walk?

It’s a fully autonomous electric mobility vehicle that runs on sidewalks at speeds of up to 6 kph. There’s no steering wheel, brake or accelerator.

In Japan, about 20,000 electric carts or “senior cars” are sold annually mainly for the elderly, but there are a lot of accidents involving them, with some falling into a ditch or getting run over by cars. People with dementia could get lost, too. Robocar Walk goes to the preset destination and returns safely. It also checks the surroundings and traffic lights for safety.

What is your marketing plan?

We initially targeted airports and commercial facilities for marketing because it can be used to guide people to their destinations. But Robocar Walk has recently received permission for use on public roads nationwide from the National Police Agency. So we now are aiming to sell it to municipal governments as well so they can use the product to provide sightseeing tours for people who have difficulty walking, for example.

We will begin mass production of Robocar Walk and plan to kick off sales in May. We expect to sell several hundred in the first year for a monthly lease payment of ¥100,000 but will lower the monthly fee to ¥50,000 if annual sales reach several thousand. That will be when I anticipate sales will skyrocket.