• Kyodo

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A town in Gunma Prefecture will kick off trials for an autonomous amphibious tour bus this winter as part of a project to foster tourism and facilitate the transport of goods between islands.

The trial will be the first of its type in the world, according to the town of Naganohara. The amphibious bus began manned operations last month around Yamba Dam, a long-delayed project that was finally completed in March.

The project team involving the Saitama Institute of Technology and other organizations plans to conduct research and development on the vehicle for two years, with an eye to putting it into practical use in five years, the private university said.

The team has secured a fiscal 2020 budget of around ¥250 million ($2.36 million) for the project, with a contribution from the Nippon Foundation.

Making full use of artificial intelligence technology, engineers must develop a new sensor for the vehicle because oscillation on land and in water differs, the institute said.

"If this is realized, we can transport goods between remote islands without transshipment or changing drivers and can keep the operation cost low as well," said Daishi Watabe, an engineering professor at the university.

The driverless test will be carried out mainly in winter, when the bus, which can carry 40 people, is not being used for tours.

The bus usually operates around Yamba Dam, taking visitors to its lake, sightseeing facilities and a camping site.

"I'm deeply moved that this world-first technological development will kick off at Yamba Dam," said Naganohara Mayor Chikao Hagiwara, adding that the town would like to use the dam as a precious tourism resource.

Yamba Dam was completed at the end of March this year, 68 years after the initial surveys were conducted. It was long opposed by some residents and construction was briefly suspended after the Democratic Party of Japan took power for the first time in 2009 with a pledge to reconsider big public works projects.

Work on the dam resumed after Gunma, Tokyo and four other surrounding prefectures demanded it.

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