TOKYO, Aug. 29 (Xinhua) -- An autonomous taxi began test drives through the busy streets of Tokyo on Monday, a trial that could provide an easy and novel way of transportation for tourists during the 2020 Olympics.
The autonomous vehicle has been developed by Tokyo-based robot maker ZMP Inc. and is being operated by taxi company Hinomaru Kotsu. The companies said they are the first in the world to offer autonomous taxi services in the test that will run through Sept. 8, Kyodo News reported.
The self-driving taxi makes four round trips a day along a busy 5.3-km route between Otemachi District near Tokyo Station and the Roppongi entertainment district. Passengers will pay 1,500 Japanese yen (about 13.5 U.S. dollars) for a one-way ride through a smartphone app, Kyodo News said.
Although the minivan-style vehicle is equipped with sensors and other autonomous technologies to start, turn and stop on its own, a driver and an assistant will be on board to ensure safety.
"It was such a natural ride that I almost forgot it was a self-driving car," a passenger on the first test run told Kyodo News.
ZMP and Hinomaru Kotsu hope to begin full commercial operation of their autonomous taxis during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Nikkei Asian Review reported.
They also plan to operate test drives on a second route later this year, connecting the Haneda Airport and central Tokyo.
Autonomous driving services are viewed as a way to address a shortage of drivers in Tokyo and the increasing demand for taxis among foreign visitors. By eliminating the need for a human driver, self-driving vehicles will significantly reduce the operating costs of taxi services and can ease public transportation shortages in remote areas.
Companies in other countries are also developing self-driving taxis. However, their common challenge is to guarantee the safety of passengers.
NuTonomy, a tech startup created by former engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, launched its self-driving taxi service in a limited area in Singapore in August 2016, making it the first company to make autonomous taxis available to the public, tech news website BGR.com reported.
Ride-hailing service Uber has been testing self-driving cars in cities across the United States. But one of its autonomous cars, with a human driver behind the wheel, struck and killed a woman in the state of Arizona in March, The New York Times reported.
In China, ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing and search engine Baidu are also developing self-driving cars.