Autonomous delivery robots to be tested on public roads
TOKYO — Autonomous delivery robots are expected to be tested on public roads in Japan before this fiscal year ends in March, it has been learned.
The Japanese government aims to have such robots in practical use during the next fiscal year or later to address the chronic shortage of workers in the distribution industry.
A public-private council will be formed to identify safety issues among other concerns through these trials before the government considers establishing necessary legislation.
The autonomous delivery robot model to be used in the trials has a box-like body, wheels and can carry cargo weighing up to tens of kilograms. The robot can deliver parcels to designated locations using Ground Positioning System data among other sources. Services using autonomous delivery robots have already started in some countries, including the United States and Estonia.
In Japan, such robots are expected to be used for short distances from the local base of a delivery company to a home or office, dubbed “last-mile delivery” in the transportation industry. Delivering parcels using trucks and other vehicles requires many drivers who often have to carry heavy items onto carts. The government aims to reduce the burden on drivers through the use of autonomous delivery robots.
Trials using autonomous delivery robots have already begun on a university campus and at other locations in Japan. In the trials, users specify a delivery time and location via smartphones or other devices. When the robot arrives at the designated location, recipients scan a QR code sent to their devices to unlock the robot’s cargo box and retrieve their parcel.
However, many issues need to be tackled before the widespread use of autonomous robots for last-mile deliveries. Under the current Road Traffic Law, autonomous delivery robots cannot use public roads, nor are they supposed to operate on sidewalks. Such regulations have prompted the government to launch a public-private council in the immediate future to conduct the new trials.
In the trials, autonomous delivery robots will be allowed to operate in designated areas to see if they obstruct pedestrians or moving vehicles, among other concerns. The government will seek municipalities that are willing to participate in the planned trials.
The public-private council is expected to be led by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, with members likely including the National Police Agency; the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry; Yamato Transport Co. and ZMP Inc., a robot development start-up based in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo.
The council will refer to case studies conducted overseas to help identify relevant issues, including if it would be necessary to establish legislation. It also will discuss who will be held responsible when accidents occur and compile relevant proposals.
The distribution industry has been facing mounting labor shortages with more than three times the number of job offerings to applicants for truck drivers, as the long working hours among other issues continue to deter job seekers.
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