Japan driverless taxi start-up eyes partnerships with automakers

FUJISAWA, Japan (Reuters) - Japan’s Robot Taxi aims to forge partnerships with carmakers to develop a driverless taxi service in time for the 2020 Olympics, the technology company said, holding its first tests on public roads and joining a global race to develop self-driving cars.

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The joint venture between gaming software maker DeNA Co and robotics developer ZMP has set the 2020 Games in Tokyo as a target to develop software to operate driverless cars and an online service to ferry athletes and tourists between Olympic venues and the city’s transport hubs.

On Monday, it launched an initial 10-day field test in which selected residents of Fujisawa, around 45 km (28 miles) south of Tokyo, can summon a Robot Taxi online or from their smartphones, to take them to a local supermarket and back home.

The test uses Toyota Motor Corp Estima minivans equipped with its “Robovision” stereo camera and data processing system, although the company has said that it is open to working with all carmakers to supply vehicles.

Robot Taxi plans to take on Japan’s famously immaculate cabs in urban centres and remote, rural towns where public transport for elderly residents is limited. The company plans to focus on systems development rather than building vehicles from scratch.

“It’s difficult to make a car from the ground up when you consider production cost and safety, and we have the world’s best automakers already doing that here in Japan,” Robot Taxi Chairman Hisashi Taniguchi told reporters.

“Our strategy is to keep our costs low by partnering with automakers for the hardware, and to keep those production costs low while we create both the technology and the service,” he added.

The world’s largest automakers are competing with technology firms to create self-driving and driverless cars, with companies from Google to Toyota investing heavily in developing both hardware and software.

General Motors said in January it would invest $500 million in Lyft Inc and laid out plans to develop an on-demand network of self-driving cars with the ride-sharing service.

The Japanese government pledged late last year to ease regulations to allow for self-driving cars to be tested on more public roads.

Still, from the standpoint of regulation and development, Japan is seen lagging behind other countries including Germany and the United States.

Editing by Keith Weir