COMMENT: Tokyo’s high-tech reputation becomes lost in transit

A new Greenstreetsoftware.info report looks at the evolution of mobility services in Japan's capital city. By Megan Lampinen

Tokyo has earned a global reputation over the years as a high-tech heaven, a utopia for anything automated. Japan was the birthplace of the conveyor belt-style food service for sushi restaurants, and this approach spills over into many aspects of life in the capital. Here, vending machines use facial recognition to offer personalised recommendations on their wide variety of products, which range from surgical masks and mobile phones to puppies and mini robots. The city’s love of robotics spreads from pets such as Aibo the robotic dog to humanoids like Honda’s Asimo. There are even lifelike robotic receptionists to be found in select Tokyo department stores.

The city’s status as a technology wonderland, however, doesn’t carry over as expected into the transportation sector. That’s not to say the transportation system doesn’t work well – it does, perhaps too well. Trains, buses and metros run on time and are clean and efficient. Sure, the high-speed bullet train has attracted considerable headline space, but its public transport is known more for the orderliness of its queuing customers and the good manners of its bowing staff than its radical risk-taking innovations.

The city’s status as a technology wonderland, however, doesn’t carry over as expected in the transportation sector.

On top of this, vehicle emissions are much less of an issue than in most other parts of the world. Diesel failed to gain a substantial foothold, and over the past two decades locally developed hybrid-powered private vehicles have skyrocketed in popularity. Almost all parking in the city centre is kept to designated multi-story car parks, leaving the roads free from the clutter of parked vehicles. In the end, the well-developed transport network has left the population and the government with little appetite for change.

However, the Olympic Games are looming and nothing piles on the pressure like public exposure. These high-profile events provide an opportunity not only to show off the latest transportation developments but also to update the current transportation system. Tokyo last hosted the Games in 1964, which resulted in the Shinkansen high-speed train system. With the 2020 Games nearing, vehicle manufacturers and city planners are preparing for a network of zero-emission, highly automated vehicles. Toyota intends to launch a fleet of self-driving cars to shuttle Olympians, their families and Games officials among the various sites.

Its public transport is known more for the orderliness of its queuing customers and the good manners of its bowing staff than its radical risk-taking innovations.

The country’s ageing population, which holds true in Tokyo as well, could serve as another spur to the development of autonomous vehicles. Older people, as well as those with any sort of mobility restrictions, are keen to explore alternatives that promise greater mobility. However, just try programming an autonomous vehicle to deal with the city’s confusing street naming and addressing system; navigating Tokyo’s narrow streets and crowded urban centres is a challenge in itself – now add in the frequent extreme weather events, including typhoons and earthquakes. That said, those who can master self-driving technology in this challenging environment could confidently take their systems anywhere in the world.

For Tokyo, the biggest near-term challenge may be moving beyond its comfort zone and taking the decision to move from a ‘good’ mobility ecosystem to a ‘great’ one. To read more about the various approaches to do just this, download the Special report: The Future of Mobility in Tokyo.

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