A subsidiary of SoftBank Corp. said Wednesday it would begin Japan’s first autonomous public road bus services in a town with a rapidly ageing population in Ibaraki Prefecture.

On Thursday, the service will be launched by Boldly Inc., an autonomous vehicle operator. The 5 kilometer round trip around central Sakai will be carried out by a 9-passenger bus, travelling at around 20 kilometres per hour.

As Japanese traffic laws ban autonomous vehicles from operating on public roads, some support crew members, including one in the driver’s seat, will be aboard.

In order to provide more useful mobility, we would like to extend our services across the country,”We would like to expand our services across the country to provide more useful mobility.”

Initially, the autonomous bus will run four round trips a day with Boldly plans to potentially extend the service to as many as five routes depending on demand, they added, along with the local government. With a population of around 24,000, the local municipality said it had allocated 520 million yen ($5 million) to help finance the bus service for five years by March 2025, as an ageing workforce at local bus operators left them facing a shortage of bus drivers.

“In a local town like Sakai, securing enough drivers to maintain public bus services has been getting difficult,” Masahiro Hashimoto, Sakai’s mayor, said at the ceremony. “Autonomous buses are what we have been looking for to offer mobility”

Saji told reporters that after plans for the autonomous bus service in Sakai were revealed in January, he has received inquiries from more than 100 local governments in Japan.



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