A SoftBank Corp. subsidiary said Wednesday it will launch Japan's first autonomous bus services on public roads in a town in Ibaraki Prefecture that has a rapidly aging population.
Boldly Inc., an autonomous vehicle operator, will launch the service on Thursday. A 9-passenger bus, driving at around 20 kilometers per hour, will make the five-kilometer round-trip journey around central Sakai.
Some support crew members, including one in the driver's seat, will be aboard, as Japanese traffic laws prohibit unmanned vehicles from operating on public roads.
"We would like to expand our services across the country to provide more useful mobility," Boldly Chief Executive Officer Yuki Saji said at a ceremony for the launch of the bus service.
The autonomous bus will initially run four round trips a day, and Boldly, along with the local government, plan to eventually expand the service to as many as five routes depending on demand, they said.
The local municipality, with a population of about 24,000, said it has earmarked 520 million yen ($5 million) to help fund the bus service for five years through March 2025, as an aging workforce at local bus operators has left them facing a shortage of bus drivers.
"In a local town like Sakai, securing enough drivers to maintain public bus services has been getting difficult," Masahiro Hashimoto, mayor of Sakai, said at the ceremony. "Autonomous buses are what we have been looking for to offer mobility" to elderly people.
Saji told reporters that he has received inquiries from more than 100 local governments in Japan since plans for the autonomous bus service in Sakai were announced in January.
© Kyodo News International, Inc., source Newswire