Self-driving buses being tested across Japan let you pay with your face

Being cautious is certainly wise, but we really seem to be dragging our collective heels when it comes to self-driving vehicles. Considering in Japan reports of cars barreling straight into storefronts seem to happen frequently, it’s hard to imagine even a flawed autonomous driving system doing much worse that humanity as a whole has been.

But steps are being made, and an interesting development has come out of Maebashi City in Gunma Prefecture.

More sparsely populated mid-sized cities such as this rely much more on vehicular transport, making it a great testing grounds for a new self-driving bus developed by a council of public transport companies, along with telecom giant NTT Docomo and Gunma University.

Like any autonomous vehicle, the buses are kitted out with sensors to monitor surrounding traffic and signage and EW also synced with traffic information and geographic information systems through a 5G connection. Testing on a route with Maebashi Station and Chuo Maebashi Station is expected to begin this December.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is holding a cross-country testing tour of self-driving buses, along with various regional bus companies.

The Hyogo Prefecture leg has just wrapped up in Mita City, in which a six-kilometer route had been run completely without a human driver for about a month between late July and late August.

Well, it was almost completely without a human. A minor software glitch required a human to take over for about four days of the trial run. Nevertheless, of the 1,306 passengers who rode the route, half said it was just as good as a human-driven bus when it came to accelerating and turning smoothly, and a further third said it was even better.

However, when it came to stopping, over half of the passengers described it as “bad” and only a quarter called it as good as a human. So while performance was a mixed bag, most walked away impressed overall.

But perhaps the most appealing feature on both the Maebashi and Mita buses is their “face pass” (kao pass) system in which passengers have their face scanned and registered beforehand so that their account gets charged automatically once their face is detected boarding a bus.

This can make the technology easier to use for seniors who aren’t comfortable with other forms of electronic payment, since they wouldn’t have to lift a finger. As for the rest of us, this also means an end to standing in line to get off the bus while someone fumbles around for exact change.

Although COVID-19 has led to small changes in scheduling, these test runs are still pushing ahead and the response has been big, with 90 percent of riders on the Kobe test simply there to check it out rather than actually getting from point A to point B.

This would suggest that the reality of self-driving buses are probably not too far away.

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