Taxi Operator Working on Self-Driving Cars for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Companies are working to bring autonomous cabs to Tokyo's streets in time for the Olympics.

The Olympics may put a major spotlight on its host city, but the games also present a major logistical challenge. When Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics in 2020, some companies believe self-driving cars will take on some of the burden of getting participants and spectators from place to place.

Japanese robotics firm ZMP is partnering with taxi operator Hinomaru Kotsu to put self-driving taxis on the road in time for the 2020 Olympics. The two companies hope this will help address a labor shortage in Japan’s taxi industry attributed to an aging population, reports Reuters.

Hinomaru claims to be one of Tokyo’s top 10 taxi firms by fleet size, with 607 taxis in operation. ZMP began testing self-driving cars with a human driver onboard as a backup last year, and hopes to start testing without a human minder later this year. ZMP is currently in search of additional funding to continue development work.

Unlike the United States, where most interest in self-driving cars seems to come from ride-sharing firms like Uber and Lyft, Japanese taxi companies are taking steps toward the development of autonomous vehicles. Several taxi firms have linked up with Toyota to share driving data, which the automaker is expected to use for development of self-driving taxis, according to Reuters.

Getting self-driving taxis into service in time for the 2020 Olympics may be as much a matter of regulation as technology. Many questions remain about how regulations will change to accommodate self-driving cars. The Japanese government may need to fast-track new rules for self-driving cars, something it has already done for another technology that will be showcased at the Olympics.

The Japanese government previously discussed using the Olympics to showcase Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of a “hydrogen society,” where hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are commonplace, with fuel cells even used to power buildings. To make that happen, Abe promised to remove some regulatory red tape in order to speed up construction of hydrogen fueling stations.

But self-driving cars present a more complex legal problem than hydrogen stations. Lawmakers need to establish who is liable when a self-driving car crashes, and set standards for a technology that is still in its infancy, among other problems. While the Olympics are a great platform for showing off new technology, organizers may also need to consider whether autonomous taxis or fuel-cell vehicles will actually be reliable—or whether more proven forms of transportation are a safer bet.