Self-driving shuttles being tested in Japan to help rural elderly population



According to, self-driving buses are being tested in rural communities in Japan, in an effort to provide elderly residents with additional transportation options.

In these communities, elderly residents don’t have access to many bus and taxi services. These communities are also home to populations that are aging and shrinking.

With this in mind, mobile gaming software maker DeNA Co (2432.T), which has branched into automotive software, is testing its driverless six-seater Robot Shuttle in these towns to see if this technology is a realistic form of transportation for the elderly.

“Smaller towns in Japan are greying even faster than cities, and there are just not enough workers to operate buses and taxis,” says Hiroshi Nakajima, the automotive director of the DeNA Co.

“But there are a lot of service areas around the country, and they could serve as a hub for mobility services.”

During the initial trials of testing the shuttle service, the DeNA Co.’s driverless Robot Shuttle transported elderly residents of Nishikata—which is located in Japan’s Tochigi prefecture—between a service area and a municipal complex that provides healthcare services.

The test checked the vehicle’s operational safety in a variety of road conditions, and it also checked whether or not those that crossed the vehicle’s path would react to the warning it emits.
Test participant Mieko Shimazaki said that the ride felt “comfortable and safe.” Her husband, Susumu, said that he would like to see these vehicles travel faster, at a speed of at least 25 miles per hour. During this trial, the Robot Shuttle traveled at approximately six miles per hour.

With approximately one-third of its 6,300 residents at an age of 65 years or older, Nishikata has a similar population profile to Japan’s. That number is up from about a quarter back in 2013, and the population overall has decreased 4.5 percent.

Shizu Yuzawa, who test rode the vehicle and says that she would be open to using this kind of service, says that as those numbers trend more in that direction, it’s only going to get more difficult for the elderly to move around.

“As people in towns become older and younger people move away, it’s going to become more difficult to get help getting around,” Yuzawa says.