Starting next month, Nissan Motor Co. is testing on regular roads what it calls "a robo-vehicle mobility service." Called Easy Ride, it uses a cell-phone app to book semi-autonomous driven rides.
But Easy Ride won't necessarily be easy if poor internet connections mean it won't work at all.
Nissan says that feedback from the 300 people who have signed up to try out Easy Ride will be used to fine-tune the app. The Japanese automaker hopes to roll it out as a commercial service in the early 2020s. Details, including pricing, are undecided.
The service was developed in a partnership, which began last year, with Japanese mobile game provider DeNA Co. DeNA has been working on driverless bus and delivery services in Japan.
For now, Easy Ride will be limited to a 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) course that starts from Nissan headquarters and winds through a shopping mall area in this Japanese port city.
The app is only in Japanese, but there are plans to offer it in several languages for tourists and other travellers.
Like other autonomous drive technology, the Easy Ride vehicle is packed with cameras, sensors and radars to recognize pedestrians, intersections, traffic lights and other vehicles.
It's still only driverless in principle, though, since Japanese law doesn't allow totally driverless vehicles. So a human driver in a no-hands position sits behind the steering wheel. The system isn't flawless, with human intervention sometimes needed to avoid a crash, according to Nissan.
It's just one of several such kinds of technology being worked on around the world, such as Google's Waymo and Tesla's Autopilot. Just about all the major automakers, including Mercedes and Toyota, are working on such technologies. Nissan has been among the most aggressive.
Although opinion is divided on the projection that as many as 10 million driverless cars will be on roads by 2020, everyone agrees the technology is going to grow.
"I think the potential is quite large in the long term, especially in large cities such as Tokyo or Boston, where there is a need for point-to-point transit but little incentive to own cars," said Nicholas Evans, an assistant professor at UMass Lowell.
However, he cautioned, "In introducing technology, all it takes is for a couple of high-profile accidents for consumers to turn against manufacturers.
"It's in the self-interest of manufacturers for rigorous testing and public input on this new kind of technology," said Evans, who studies the ethical dilemmas posed by emerging technologies such as drones and self-driving vehicles.
For Easy Ride, users first download a special app on their cellphones.
After logging on, voice recognition is used to set a destination, and the date and time for when the ride picks you up at one of four possible spots in Yokohama.
Once in the back seat of the vehicle, a display shows your route on a digital map. It also recommends events such as concerts, historical landmarks, restaurants and other places to visit, which pop up as photos and text on the display. The service also includes coupons that can be downloaded and used at those spots.
Easy Ride is still experimental, but future uses Nissan envisions include parents using it to pick up their children and tourists using it to easily find their way around.
Some glitches remain.
In a recent demonstration for reporters, the app had problems launching because of a poor net connection at Nissan headquarters.
When a reporter said, "I want to eat a burger," it successfully recommended several nearby joints.
But it was not able to find the nearest New Balance store, or any other place to buy sneakers.