Nissan's robotaxi field-test to be challenge to Waymo

TOKYO — Nissan’s plan to field-test robotaxis in downtown Yokohama early next year will represent a Japanese challenge to Waymo in the race for self-driving cars.

Nissan will team up with the Japanese mobile and online tech company DeNA Co. in the venture, which is similar to Google’s recent move to test self-driving taxis in Arizona.

Nissan’s parry, called Easy Ride, is an advance step in its goal to become an operator of robo-vehicle ride-hailing services in the early 2020s, and to deliver completely driverless vehicles by 2022.

The automaker is chasing that timeline with its global alliance partners Renault and Mitsubishi Motors.

But the scope of Nissan’s upcoming trial will be limited.

Rides will run for two weeks in March and be confined to an area of downtown Yokohama, the city south of Tokyo where Nissan has its global headquarters. The service will use modified Nissan Leaf electric vehicles, but only two will be on call.

The robotaxis won’t pick up passengers just anywhere; riders must assemble at designated pickup points. Drop-off will work the same way — only at select locations on a set route.

But Nissan’s system, operated through a smartphone app, can recommend destinations, such as sightseeing spots, based on the rider’s interest. And it supports multiple languages.

Volunteers can register to use the free service through Jan. 15. Nissan expects hundreds to sign up. A technician will be sitting behind the wheel as a safety backup.

Nissan and DeNA began testing the robovehicles earlier this year. DeNA is an Internet and artificial intelligence specialist that wants to break into driverless mobility.

In France, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance has been field testing robo-vehicles with partner Transdev.

Nissan’s development of the self-driving system used in the upcoming Yokohama trial was in-house. DeNA supplies the application and mobile service.

Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company, began operating a self-driving ride-hailing pilot for select residents in Chandler, Ariz., earlier this year. The company says it plans to expand the range of its driverless vehicles to a 600-square-mile area — about the size of greater London — and allow members of the trial to ride without safety drivers in the next few months.

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