TOKYO— Nissan Motor Co. plans to start testing robo-taxis on Japanese streets in March with the aim of launching a self-driving taxi service, as Japan’s top car makers struggle to keep pace with Detroit and Silicon Valley.
Nissan said at the start of the year that it was teaming up with Tokyo software company DeNA Co. to build a fleet of self-driving Leaf electric cars that could be summoned using a smartphone application. With Tuesday’s announcement, the auto maker has laid out its first concrete plan to get those vehicles on the road.
Nissan is ahead of the other major Japanese auto makers in offering a self-driving taxi service. But its plan to introduce the service by the early 2020s puts it behind some global car makers.
General Motors Co. said last month it would have a fleet of self-driving taxis operating in big cities by 2019. GM Chief Executive Mary Barra said the U.S. company is “quarters, not years” away from fielding driverless cars.
Waymo LLC, the driverless-car unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc., has 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans on the streets of the Phoenix metro area, and has plans to field 500 more. The company recently showed off how the vehicles can operate without a human monitor in the driver’s seat. Uber Technologies Inc. has ordered 24,000 Volvo sport-utility vehicles to convert into autonomous automobiles, with deliveries starting in 2019.
Nissan’s domestic rivals, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. , haven’t announced any plans for a taxi service using self-driving vehicles.
One reason Japanese makers have been slower to roll out such services is local regulation. Japan recently amended its rules to allow testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads; but the rules require coordination with local municipalities and police, in addition to a lot of paperwork.
In Nissan’s case, that means a sizable human contingent to monitor the robot controlling the steering wheel. The vehicles will have a safety driver in the front seat and a call center will track the vehicle’s location and condition, both of which are required under Japanese rules.
Also, for the field tests Nissan staff will wait at both the pickup and drop-off points to ensure passengers get in and out of the vehicle safely, a measure mandated by local police since there is a bicycle lane at the locations.
“Although the envisioned service is driverless, we have to use people to watch everything happening in the field test,” a Nissan spokesman said.
Initially, Nissan will put two Leaf electric cars, equipped with an array of cameras and sensors, on the road in Yokohama, near its headquarters. Members of the public can apply to be part of the initial field tests.
In addition to tight regulation, Nissan faces potential challenges from Japan’s powerful taxi lobby, which has sought—successfully thus far—to keep the main business of ride-hailing companies like Uber out of Japan.
Nissan’s service, called Easy Ride, does have one feature yet to be shown off by rivals: It can deal with an urgent case of the munchies.
Instead of an address, users can use the application and type: “I want to eat pancakes.” Using software from DeNA, a Japanese game app maker that also has a tie-up with Nintendo Co. , the car will suggest a restaurant with good pancakes, offer a discount coupon and drive to the drop-off point nearest the restaurant.
—Chieko Tsuneoka contributed to this article.
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