Minivan equipped with sensors makes four round-trips a day on a busy stretch of road, picking up paying passengers.
A self-driving taxi has successfully taken paying passengers through the busy streets of Tokyo, raising the prospect that the service will be ready in time to ferry athletes and tourists between sports venues and the city centre during the 2020 Summer Olympics.
ZMP, a developer of autonomous driving technology, and the taxi company Hinomaru Kotsu, claim that the road tests, which began this week, are the first in the world to involve driverless taxis and fare-paying passengers.
The trial took place as Toyota and the transport giant Uber said they were intensifying efforts to develop a self-driving vehicle, pitting themselves against rival initiatives in Japan, the US and Europe.
Toyota will invest $500m in the venture, which will develop vehicles based on the carmakers’ Sienna minivans, with a view to start testing in 2021, the firms said this week.
Uber’s autonomous driving venture suffered a setback in March when one of its self-driving vans struck and killed a pedestrian during a trial in Arizona.
Nissan and the tech firm DeNa tested their Easy Ride robo-vehicle service along a 4.5km set route in the port city of Yokohama earlier this year.
DeNa and ZMP have also conducted trials of a driverless taxi using Toyota’s Estima minivans, shuttling dozens of residents from their homes to the local shops in the town of Fujisawa, near Tokyo, in March 2016.
In the latest trial in Tokyo, a minivan equipped with sensors made four round-trips a day on a busy 5.3km stretch of road between the Otemachi and Roppongi districts, according to Kyodo news.
The experiment, which ends early next month, has captured the imagination of Tokyoites, with 1,500 people applying to be passengers during the 96 planned journeys between the two destinations.
A driver and an assistant are on board to take control of the vehicle in case of any mishaps, but early journeys have passed off without incident.
Passengers unlock the door themselves and pay their one-way fare – about 1,500 yen ($13) – via a smartphone app.
One of the first passengers said his Monday morning journey felt “so natural that I almost forgot it was a self-driving car,” according to Kyodo.
Hinomaru Kotsu’s president, Kazutaka Tomita, said the test was a “precious step” towards the day when autonomous driving becomes fully commercial.
With one eye on the Tokyo Games, the firms will conduct follow-up tests later this year connecting Haneda airport and the city centre’s transport hubs.
As one of the fastest-ageing societies in the world, Japan is an ideal market for the introduction of self-driving vehicles as it contends with a shortage of drivers in depopulated rural areas and a rise in the number of accidents involving older motorists.