Japan’s Elderly Population Fueling Push for Driverless Cars, Buses

Wilbert Tan

The automotive industry as a whole understands that vehicle autonomy is the next logical step in transportation. Car manufacturers left and right are developing their own self-driving technologies and systems in a bid to be the first one to do so successfully. Likewise, many countries are readily embracing vehicle autonomy because they know it can usher in a whole new world of convenience.

However, Japan is promoting self-driving vehicles for an entirely unique reason: its aging population in the rural areas.

Driverless Robot Shuttle

“Smaller towns in Japan are graying even faster than cities, and there are just not enough workers to operate buses and taxis,” said Hiroshi Nakajima of automotive director of mobile gaming software maker DeNA Co, which has branched into automotive software.

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

An aging and declining population

First-world cities such as Paris and Singapore have been experimenting with autonomous vehicles and making strides with the technology, which could prove crucial in Japan, where populations in rural areas are not only aging, but declining as well.

Japan has been experiencing rapid reduction in its working age population for over a decade. The problem is even worse in locales distant from the major cities. Fewer and fewer buses and taxis are servicing Japan’s rural areas with each passing day, that’s why autonomous driving technology is fast becoming a much-needed solution.

Japan’s autonomous future

Driverless buses and cars are now being tested in rural communities such as Nishikita, located in Japan’s Tochigi prefecture and 115 kms north of Tokyo. DeNA Co is managing the trials, which makes use of the company’s prototype Robot Shuttle model that can seat six passengers total. In one of the tests, the shuttle ferried a few select residents from a service area to a healthcare complex.

One test rider, Shizu Yuzawa, expressed her openness to such services. “I worry about not being able to go out when I’m no longer able to drive,” she said during the tests.

If the trials yield favorable results, the country may start offering autonomous services in rural areas as early as 2020. The government also plans to use highway rest stops as hubs for ferrying the elderly to medical, retail, and banking establishments.

Encapsulating Japan’s aging problem

The status of the graying population in Nishikita perfectly encapsulates the country’s worsening age and population problem. Roughly one-third of its population are over the age of 65. Meanwhile, the overall population has shrunk 4.5 percent within the last four years.

The Japanese government hopes that adding autonomous vehicle services to its elderly can help avert a population catastrophe.

Earlier this week, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) announced that it signed a a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Japan to hire at least 100,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to address its worsening labor shortage amid its ageing population.

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