Nissan Motor and DeNA announced today that field tests of Easy Ride, the self-driving taxi service they developed together, will begin next month in Japan. This means that Nissan and DeNA now rank among Uber, Lyft, GM, Didi Chuxing and other companies pioneering self-driving taxi pilots, with the goal of launching commercially within the next few years.
DeNA is a Tokyo-headquartered online services company that is probably best known outside of Japan for a partnership with Nintendo that has produced mobile games like “Fire Emblem Heroes.” Its other services, however, encompass a wide range of verticals, including e-commerce, entertainment, healthcare, social networking and automotive tech. Two years ago, DeNA launched its first production vehicles with French autonomous vehicle company EasyMile, which are used to provide a driverless shuttle service called Robot Shuttle in Japanese cities.
Easy Ride’s first field test will begin on March 5 in Yokohama, the city to the south of Tokyo where Nissan’s global headquarters are located. Its self-driving taxis, which the companies call “robo-vehicles,” will take passengers along a 4.5 kilometer set route between the Yokohama World Porters shopping center and Nissan’s corporate complex. During the ride, passengers can try out Easy Ride’s concierge features by using a mobile app to ask for suggestions about local sightseeing destinations, which are then displayed on an in-car tablet screen, with coupons available for download. A remote monitoring center will oversee the cars during the field test and passengers will be asked after their ride to complete a survey about their experiences and how much they would be willing to pay for Easy Ride when it launches.
Nissan is one of several Japanese automakers that want to get self-driving vehicles on the road by the beginning of the next decade, motivated by the country’s aging population, which needs more transportation options, and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants self-driving vehicles to help with transportation during the games and also serve as a showcase for Japan’s manufacturing and technological prowess. The government is currently in the process of drawing up laws meant to make the process of testing and commercializing autonomous vehicle systems more efficient.
Nissan and DeNA say they plan to launch full service of Easy Ride in the early 2020s, after a limited rollout. The fields tests will be used to “develop service designs for driverless environments, expanded service routes, vehicle distribution logic, pick-up/drop-off processes and multilingual support,” the companies said in a release.
The taxi industry in major Japanese cities like Tokyo is heavily regulated and cab drivers are required to have special licenses, so companies there must focus on other services instead of ride-sharing. For example, earlier this week Sony announced that it will launch an AI-based taxi-calling app, while Uber chief executive officer Dara Khosrowshahi said the company wants to form partnerships with a taxi companies to put new life into its Japanese expansion strategy.