The inevitable day when our robot overlords take control, and Jeremy Clarkson can finally be consigned to irrelevance forever, edges ever closer. For some months now the University of Michigan has been testing driverless cats in its own specially built fake city. In Britain, there's already programme under way to test the things in real cities.
Now Japan has gone one better and is trying them out with actual passengers in them. From March 2016, the imaginatively named Robot Taxi – a partnership between mobile internet firm DeNa and automated vehicle developer ZMP – will be sending driverless taxis out onto the streets of Fujisawa, a coastal town with the lofty aims to become Japan's first "smart town".
The cars will use GPS, cameras and all that jazz to navigate the town, taking 50 elderly locals to and from the shops on journeys of around 3km at a time. In the initial phase at least, while no one will drive the cars, an attendant will sit in the driver's seat. Just, yknow, in case.
Here's a video advertising the project:
They look pretty happy, as elderly people at the mercy of robots go.
The fact the driverless cars are first being tested as vehicles for elderly passengers is not a coincidence. Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world, and in the very near future is expected to have more than 5m drivers over the age of 75 on its roads.
And elderly drivers – there's no polite way of saying this – are not the safest. According to the Japan Times:
Although fatal traffic accidents overall have been on the wane for 14 years through 2014, the percentage of such accidents caused by elderly drivers in that age category increased from 5.5 percent in 2003 to 11.9 percent in 2013.
Finding a way of getting those people around the place, without needing to take the wheel themselves, is thus a major public policy priority.
If the trials of the new technology are successful, then driverless cars could be a common sight on the streets of Japan by the time the Olympics hit Tokyo in 2020.