Driverless cars: A town near Tokyo is using "robot taxis" to take elderly passengers to the shops

"Robots in disguise." Image: Robot Taxi.

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.


Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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