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Nissan Motor Co. is carrying out Japan’s largest demonstration to date of autonomous vehicles in Yokohama as the automaker moves toward rolling out a commercial automated service.

Although regulations and the need for further technology improvements mean a full-scale launch is still some years away, Nissan has been testing the self-driving taxi service in Yokohama, near its corporate headquarters. Passengers can book rides via a smartphone app that covers some 650 routes and embark and disembark from 23 points around the city.

For now, the autonomous taxis have operators sitting ready to take over in case the vehicles’ various sensors encounter a situation that requires human assistance. The goal is to eventually have such “safety drivers” monitor a fleet of such taxis remotely. In this way, savings on driver fees could lead to lower fares versus conventional taxis, according to Nissan.

The service is one part of Nissan’s “Ambition 2030” long-term strategy announced earlier this week. Also included are plans to equip over 2.5 million vehicles with its “ProPilot” semi-autonomous driving system and spend some ¥2 trillion ($17.7 billion) on electrifying more of its fleet.

A Nissan Motor Co. e-NV200 electric van used for the firm's
A Nissan Motor Co. e-NV200 electric van used for the firm’s “Easy Ride” on-demand automated vehicle dispatch service during a demonstration in Yokohama on Nov. 30 | BLOOMBERG

The automaker also envisions the automated taxi service addressing a shortage of public transport drivers. With Japan’s population aging rapidly and declining, elderly people’s inability to get around, especially in rural areas, has emerged as a growing social issue. Nissan has been testing similar autonomous shuttles in Namie, a town in Fukushima Prefecture that was damaged and temporarily evacuated during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

So far, the service has proved popular with test passengers, with one middle-aged rider booking taxis in Yokohama 38 times in the recent 29-day testing period, according to Jun Watanabe, a manager in Nissan’s business partnership development division. Other users, however, reckon they’re still better when it comes to navigating traffic jams, he said.

“It was a bit of a shock to have cars driving themselves,” especially for elderly passengers, Watanabe said. But they started to visibly relax after a couple rounds in the back seat, he said. The cars’ cameras even picked up some beginning to unfurl newspapers or browse their smartphones on their second or third time around, he added.

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