Nissan plans to launch its own self-driving taxi service in Japan

Nissan is preparing to launch its own self-driving taxi service, a sign that the Japanese auto giant is interested in challenging Uber in the race to deploy a fleet of money-making autonomous vehicles. Nissan will partner with DeNa to launch its Easy Ride robot taxi service on March 5th, the automaker said.

The testing will be limited at first. Riders based in the Minato Mirai district of Yokohama, in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture, will be able to hail one of the self-driving Nissan Leaf vehicles using a new app. The vehicles will be geofenced along a 4.5-kilometer route between Nissan’s global headquarters and the Yokohama World Porters shopping center. Safety drivers will remain behind the wheel of the vehicles, and a remote operations center has been set up to monitor the car trips. The companies say they will expand the service to a much wider market by 2020.

There also appears to be a heavy emphasis on marketing deals with local Japanese businesses. According to Nissan:

An in-car tablet screen will show selections of nearly 500 recommended places of interest and events in the vicinity. Additionally, about 40 discount coupons for retailers and restaurants in the area are available for download on the participants’ own smartphones.

Participants will be asked to complete a survey about their overall user experience, usage of content and coupons from local retailers and restaurants, and preferred pricing for the Easy Ride service.

DeNa (pronounced D-N-A) is a Japanese online service company best known as the key collaborator in Nintendo’s smartphone efforts. In addition to its work with the makers of Mario, DeNa is also extremely active in the transportation sector, with initiatives related to self-driving taxis, car-sharing, and parking space-sharing. In 2016, the company launched its own autonomous bus service called Robot Shuttle. (The Verge’s Sam Byford had this to say about the pre-programmed demo: “It didn’t crash.”)

After it launches its service, Nissan will be joining the ranks of Uber, Lyft, Ford, GM, Didi Chuxing, Waymo, and other companies that are dipping their toes into the world of autonomous ride-hailing vehicles. Experts predict that taxi services that operate in geofenced, dense urban environments will be the first encounter with self-driving cars for many people.

Some automakers are focused on generating a great deal of revenue by selling autonomous vehicles to ride-hailing companies as they scale their driverless taxi fleets. But others, like Ford, GM, and now Nissan, are interested in grabbing a piece of that potentially lucrative market themselves by launching their own taxi services. What they lack in data and algorithms, they can make up for in manufacturing capabilities and scale.

Nissan will have heavy competition on its home turf. Sony recently announced that it would be partnering with Daiwa Motor Transportation and five other local taxi companies in Japan to build a new taxi-hailing system to match drivers with riders via a mobile app. Both pushes come at the same time that Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who was recently in Tokyo, is attempting to make new inroads into the Japanese market. Khosrowshahi met with executives at Toyota about “growing our #autonomous partnership and lessons 4 me in building a great culture,” he tweeted.

Easy Ride

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