Where is the autonomous vehicle capital of the world?

Your thoughts might turn to tech-obsessed San Francisco, where companies like Apple and Tesla are already motoring away on plans for self-driving cars. But when autonomous vehicles take off, it might not happen in a city at all — and the vehicles might not be cars.

Throughout the developed world, rural areas struggle to provide adequate public transport for their residents. Japan, where this challenge is particularly acute, is leading the way towards a new solution: self-driving buses.

Lowering labour costs could save rural transport links from the axe, and simple traffic conditions mean the technology could be deployed long before it’s viable for big cities. But what will it take to lure cutting-edge tech companies into the countryside?

Transport struggles

In Japan, an ageing population is putting strain on public services of all kinds. But the burden is particularly heavy in rural areas, where young people moving away leave authorities with very little funding. Public transport services are limited.

“Local governments provide very small bus systems that provide service maybe once every hour or two,” said Yuzuru Ohashi, a partner at the Tokyo office of Roland Berger, a consultancy. “It’s very inconvenient.”

But even these minimal services incur financial losses for their operators, he explained. Expansion is not on the table, even though the older, rural population uses fewer cars and therefore needs public transport more.

The same kind of problem afflicts the US and UK, where rural campaign groups regularly highlight the need for better service. According to a 2013 study, only 44% of rural residents in the UK had reasonable public transport connecting them to schools, hospitals and shops.

For those who do drive, rural areas have another problem: they’re unusually dangerous. The UK Department for Transport has found that while rural roads carry only 40% of traffic, 62% of road fatalities occur on them.

Autonomous vehicles could be the perfect solution to this whole cocktail of problems.

A March 2018 report from Roland Berger suggests that self-driving vehicles could significantly reduce the costs of running rural bus services, primarily by slashing labour costs, bringing them close to profitability.

Image: Roland Berger

Leading the way is Japan, where prime minister Shinzo Abe pledged last year to help rural communities by introducing autonomous buses by 2020. Rural local governments across the country are launching trials, including several partnering with the self-driving vehicle subsidiary of SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate which is Uber’s largest shareholder.

Autonomous driving at its current level of development is well-suited to rural areas. Buses which run a fixed route avoid the need for extensive mapping, Ohashi explained, and there’s significantly less need to change lanes or deal with other traffic on rural roads.

“You can’t put a driverless car in the centre of Manhattan and expect it to have any success”

In one Japanese trial, buses run on a filled-in railroad track. “It’s really straightforward: no obstacles, no sharp turns,” Ohashi said. But labour and maintenance costs for self-driving buses are far below those for the train that had previously operated there.

Expanding the use of autonomous vehicles in rural areas beyond public transport will pose more challenges. Most self-driving technology requires detailed mapping, which is absent for many small and lower-quality rural roads. That technical problem is being worked on by researchers at MIT, who are developing a prototype technology which makes greater use of sensors.

If those technological developments succeed, self-driving cars could make an even bigger impact in rural communities. Roland Berger’s report found that if public transport operators could complement their services with a “last mile” offering on smaller roads, they could become comfortably profitable — potentially enabling them to expand services further.

Even without new technology, though, the countryside could be ready to welcome autonomous vehicles long before cities.

“You can’t put a driverless car in the centre of Manhattan and expect it to have any success,” said Zak Accuardi, former senior program associate at TransitCenter in New York. “But in lower density settings, more suburban, more rural, I can imagine autonomous vehicles playing a bigger role.”

Rural areas give vital data

Funding support from the Japanese government is one important ingredient in encouraging companies to experiment with self-driving vehicles in rural areas. But, Ohashi said, technology companies have their own reasons for participating as well.

“They need a lot of data. Not just test data, but actual data from operations”

Although commercial opportunities are more extensive in large cities, the opportunity to get vehicles on the road sooner is one companies are keen to take. That’s because it can help with one key ingredient for continuing to refine their technology: data.

“They need a lot of data,” Ohashi said. “Not just test data, but actual data from operations.” That is hard to come by. Major players like Tesla and Apple have conducted tests in some smaller US cities, but their scale is relatively limited because more complex road conditions require backup drivers and extensive negotiation with local governments.

By contrast, Ohashi explained, actually operating public transport services would produce much larger amounts of data that could be used in refining the technology to prepare it for urban driving. “It’s a much better way to accumulate data.”

In spite of those benefits, the development of self-driving vehicles for rural public transport is not well advanced in the US. That may be for ideological reasons, rather than operational ones. Autonomous cars are widely seen as an alternative to public transport in American public debate.

“Why are these modes of transport being pitted against each other?” Accuardi asked. “The reason is usually politics. They tend to have a more libertarian, smaller government world view. There’s usually a lot of ideology wrapped up in statements like that.”

In Japan, by contrast, several trials have now been deemed successful enough that authorities are looking for partners to establish a full commercial operation. Prime Minister Abe’s deadline looks likely to be met.

“In rural areas, I think 2020 is realistic for real implementation of services,” Ohashi said. “For metropolitan areas, at that point, it will just be a prototype offering.” It may seem unlikely, but on one technological frontier, Japan’s ageing countryside will soon be at the cutting-edge. — Fergus Peace