JR East’s self-driving bus to begin operations in Miyagi

Jiji Press
A self-driving vehicle of the bus rapid transit system is seen in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, on Wednesday.

TOME, Miyagi Pref. (Jiji Press) — East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) will start operating a self-driving bus service on Monday on an exclusive road built on the site of a former rail track of its Kesennuma Line in a coastal area in Miyagi Prefecture.

The bus can reach a maximum speed of 60 kph, an unprecedented feature involving a large autonomous bus in Japan. It is attracting keen attention as an alternative means of transportation as railway operators in local areas are financially struggling due to falling passenger numbers.

“Measures that are in line with changes of the times are important,” JR East Executive Vice President Katsumi Ise said at an event in the Miyagi city of Tome on Wednesday to unveil the self-driving bus to media, underlining the significance of introducing exclusive roads for buses and self-driving technology to them to maintain means of transportation in local areas.

After the Kesennuma Line was damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, JR East decided to introduce the so-called bus rapid transit system, in which rail tracks are converted to specialized roads for buses.

The company started operating the BRT service in 2012. It will launch the self-driving service on a 4.8-kilometer section between Yanaizu Station and Rikuzenyokoyama Station. Buses on the section will use sensors to detect magnetic markers embedded in the road.

Since 2018, JR East has tested the self-driving BRT service, successfully improving the technology to stop the bus before it collides with an obstacle, according to a company official.

While there is still a driver on board, JR East is considering making the BRT service fully autonomous and expanding the service section in the future. The effort is partly aimed at easing the shortage of drivers amid the country’s declining birthrate.

West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) is also testing an autonomous BRT service, aiming to launch it on a commercial basis in the mid-2020s.

BRT is less expensive to operate than railway services. It can set service routes and the number of buses in service flexibly, and is more suitable to self-driving than conventional bus services.

The system is considered key to realigning unprofitable rail routes in local areas, an industry official said. In July, an advisory panel to the transport ministry proposed BRT as one option to promote the realignment.

But BRT is not perfect because it is not suited for long-distance transportation as it is difficult for self-driving buses to travel at high speeds.

Unlike railway services in local areas that are attractive as a tourist resource, BRT is currently available only as a means of transportation for local residents, a municipal official in the Miyagi city of Kesennuma said.

As regular road maintenance is necessary, a BRT service will become unprofitable if it fails to attract enough passengers.

Discussions based on the actual conditions of each region are necessary before introducing BRT, Nomura Research Institute Ltd. said.