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Going for gold: Will driverless cars be available at Tokyo’s Olympics?

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Raven Brookes
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Tokyo has big ambitions for their Olympic Games in 2020, and we're not just talking about medals

In 2015, Japan amazed the world by saying that self-driving cars – including fleets of driverless taxis – would play a big part in their hosting of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games. With Tokyo 2020 just 16 months away, how close are they to making that a reality, and what will it mean for Japan if they pull it off?

The Shinkansen Legacy

By the opening ceremony in 2020, it will have been 56 years since Tokyo last played host to the Olympic games. In a bid to show the world how far it had come since it was devastated by World War II, and to start the 1964 Olympics with a bold statement, Japan unveiled the Shinkansen. This was the world's first high-speed train, which became colloquially known as the 'bullet train'.

The Shinkansen was slick, state-of-the-art and it symbolised a whole new era of transport for both Japan and the world. It went on to form a benchmark for other high-speed railways, with the same technology being used all over the world, from China to the UK. In fact, it's still influencing high-speed rail to this very day.

Keeping with tradition, Japan plans on making a similarly bold statement about the future of national and global transport technology in 2020. They will do this by making driverless cars a key feature in their second hosting of the Olympic games. Or, at least, that's the plan.

Enter: Mr Abe

In October 2015, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was feeling pretty confident about this ambitious goal: “I can tell you that in 2020 Tokyo, self-driving cars will be running around, and you will be able to use them to move around,” he remarked during that year's annual meeting of the Science and Technology in Society (STS) forum.

Mr Abe had experienced driverless technology himself a few years prior to making these remarks, as he had completed several high-profile test drives in autonomous cars in 2013. This was all part of a much bigger plan by Abe, who took office in 2012, to boost the Japanese economy by promoting new technology and changing the legislation around its use.

Progress since then has been slow but steady, with Japanese brands Toyota, Honda and, most recently, Hitachi taking part in creating economy-boosting autonomous tech. Tokyo envisioned both the athletes and the spectators benefitting from driverless transportation for the Olympics inside and around the village, the arena and even in the city of Tokyo.

(Photo: shuttershock.com)

How close are they?

Toyota are planning on providing their driverless e-Palette cars to transport competitors around the athlete's village as part of a 3,000 strong fleet. This will be alongside two different types of new 'fuel cell' vehicles powered by a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen. The driverless e-Palette, which was conceptually unveiled in January 2018, will be fully electric, shaped like a cube and minus a driver's seat and steering wheel – or any manual controls at all.

That may well be the athletes and other partaking members of the games covered, but what about the spectators? Well, in July 2018, a month-long driverless experiment began with city road tests for self-driving pay-as-you-go taxis made by ZMP, a developer of driverless technology and a rival to Toyota and Uber.

1,500 people signed up to give the driverless minivan a spin, with 96 chosen to order the vehicle via their smartphones and pay 1,500 yen (13,41 USD) for a one-way trip through the busy streets of Tokyo. The terms of the road tests meant that a driver and an assistant were present at all times to take over if required, but the experiment ended in August without any major incidents.

The success of this experiment, with others planned in the coming year, bodes very well for Tokyo's hopes for making driverless mobility a possibility by the opening ceremony. But once the final medals have been awarded and the torch has been passed to Beijing for 2022, what will Tokyo do with their new driverless tech and infrastructure?

The long game

The Olympics is both a rollout deadline, and a large-scale road test. The Japanese government fully intends to commercialise the driverless system as early as 2022 – tying into a big, overarching innovation strategy which includes plans for virtual power plants and various artificial intelligence technologies.

Aside from keeping Japan at the forefront of innovation and technological advancement on the global stage, there are ulterior motives to this push for driverless progress. With an ageing and declining workforce, as well as sluggish economic growth, Japanese companies have struggled to keep up with their Chinese, European and U.S. counterparts in a number of different ways. But that could be set to change.

(Photo: Owen Price/iStock)

The commercialisation of driverless technology, starting with the 2020 Olympic Games, is just the beginning. With radical new autonomous technologies being so heavily promoted, and new legislation being created to make it easier for businesses to use it, Japan could well be setting a brand-new benchmark for transport technology in 2020 – for the second time in a row.

What do you think? Will Tokyo be ready for driverless cars in 16 months' time, or are they jumping the gun?

Join the debate and tell us what you think!

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