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IIST e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

The Tohoku Next-Generation Advanced Mobility System Technology Field Practice Consortium and Regional Revitalization [Date of Issue: 27/April/2018 No.0278-1075]

Date of Issue: 27/April/2018

The Tohoku Next-Generation Advanced Mobility System Technology Field Practice
Consortium and Regional Revitalization

Professor Takahiro Suzuki
NICHe (New Industry Creation Hatchery Center), Tohoku University


Various initiatives are currently underway in Tohoku that seek to use innovation based on advanced technologies to bring about regional revitalization. In Sendai, which has been designated by the government as a National Strategic Special Zone as part of promoting the field practice of near-future technologies, progress is being made on establishing R&D as well as establishment of hubs for next-generation advanced mobility systems such as autonomous driving and drone testing. Here we look at efforts by a consortium set up to resolve regional issues such as disaster-affected areas, population aging and depopulation, and population decline and create new industries and jobs.


Introduction

In the four years since I came to Tohoku, the five years following the Great East Japan Earthquake which were designated by the government as the “Intensive Reconstruction Period” came to an end and the region moved into the “Reconstruction and Revitalization Period.” While looking at Sendai alone certainly gives the sense that reconstruction and recovery have been achieved, when I occasionally have the opportunity to go out to other areas such as Ishinomaki, Minamisanriku, and Minamisoma in Fukushima, I'm always painfully struck by how many challenges remain before these areas could be considered to have recovered in any real sense of the word.

Strenuous efforts are certainly proceeding on a number of fronts, but I think we need to be constantly focused on the development of mechanisms for long-term sustainability that will be unaffected by budgetary or personnel constraints. While I am deeply appreciative of the considerable support that the region has received and will continue to receive, I would like the region to continue treading a path that emphasizes the development of an even wider circle of partnerships.

Tohoku Next-Generation Advanced Mobility System Technology Field Practice Consortium

The Tohoku Next-Generation Advanced Mobility System Technology Field Practice Consortium was set up in August 2016 with the cooperation of Miyagi City, Sendai City, the Tohoku Economic Federation, and Tohoku University. Prompted by the 2015 designation of Sendai City as a National Strategic Special Zone for the field practice of near-future technologies such as autonomous driving and drone testing, etc., the aim of the consortium is to use that environment for field practice based on industry-government-university partnership, with Tohoku companies as the main agents but also widening participation to interested companies, universities and research institutes throughout Japan.

Tohoku Next-Generation Advanced Mobility System Technology Field Practice Consortium

Through the Miyagi Automotive Industry Promotion Council, Miyagi Advanced Electronic Equipment Promotion Council, Sendai Foundation for Applied Information Sciences, Miyagi Industrial Association and other local corporate associations, the Consortium has garnered the participation of around 1,300 companies. With the many ministries involved in autonomous driving and Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), etc., including central government agencies such as the Cabinet Secretariat, Cabinet Office, METI, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, MIC, the National Police Agency, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, as well as their local bureaus, the Consortium is also building relationships that will give it one-stop functionality.

The Consortium Steering Committee comprises the four organizations that spearheaded the Consortium's establishment, while the Tohoku University New Industry Creation Hatchery Center (NICHe) and the Policy Planning Division within Sendai City's City Planning Policy Bureau serve as the Secretariat, promoting various types of field practice in the region. Working Groups are set up to address specific initiatives, with the various members pursuing their particular areas of interest.

Working Group activities

Four Working Groups are currently operating under the Consortium: WG1 (Legal System Consideration), WG2 (Autonomous Driving Field Practice), WG3 (Drone Field Practice), and WG4 (Application of Battery Technologies).

Legal System Consideration
WG1 was originally set up to examine where laws and regulations would need to be relaxed to promote special zones. With the National Police Agency now permitting nationwide the driving/drone flight field practice necessary at this stage, the scope of potentially relevant legislation is quite wide, including the Road Transport Vehicle Act and the Road Transportation Act in terms of business models for autonomous driving operations and the Civil Aeronautics Act and the Radio Act for drone use. The scope of WG1 considerations also goes beyond regulatory relaxation to encompass, for example, efforts to promote awareness and understanding, such as mock trials based on what might happen if an autonomous driving or drone accident occurred.

Autonomous Driving Field Practice
While field practice of autonomous driving is one of the Consortium's main goals, to differentiate its efforts from those being undertaken elsewhere in Japan, the WG's focus is on initiatives that will be sustainable into the future and on the creation of basic conditions conducive to the coexistence of multiple companies and entrepreneurs, etc. The public demonstration held in Sendai City's Arahama in March 2016, for example, featured field practice not only by Tohoku University but also other universities and private enterprises, and not only autonomous driving but also drone use, highlighting the Consortium's role in providing a space where different types of field practice can all be conducted together.

As of FY2017, five Sub-Working Groups (SWGs) have been set up under WG2. With SWG1 (Aobayama), SWG2 (Sendai City Special Zone) and SWG3 (Multi-region Deployment) in particular, fields have been divided into stages so that field practice and actual social deployment can be pursued simultaneously in multiple regions. SWG2 has presented a proposal to Sendai City on the use of the Arahama district for field practice, and has also examined possible concepts for the introduction of a new transportation system in Izumi Park Town, a new residential area in the north of Sendai, running its first demonstration in October 2017.

Arahama is also a coastal town that was affected by the tsunami waves caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake, with many locals losing their lives. While no one can live there at the moment because it is a designated disaster danger area, it is being considered for utilization in the field practice of next-generation technologies. Back in 2011, fleeing vehicles jammed the roads and many people were swallowed by the tsunami as they sat in their cars. Autonomous vehicles linked into information communications systems that could drive themselves where necessary might be very useful in terms of vehicles coordinating with each other in times of natural disaster to enable people to be evacuated smoothly while preventing traffic jams, for example.

An EV in an autonomous driving experiment (a conversion of COMS, Toyota's ultra-compact EV) Autonomous driving has stronger potential in rural areas than in built-up city areas. Tohoku University's outstanding sensor technology is perfect for bad weather and other adverse conditions frequently experienced in rural areas such as rain, fog, snow and dust.

An EV in an autonomous driving experiment (a conversion of COMS, Toyota's ultra-compact EV)
Autonomous driving has stronger potential in rural areas than in built-up city areas. Tohoku University's outstanding sensor technology is perfect for bad weather and other adverse conditions frequently experienced in rural areas such as rain, fog, snow and dust.

SWG3 (Multi-region Deployment), which is led by The University of Tokyo Advanced Mobility Research Center (ITS Center) Associate Professor Koichi Sakai (former Iwaki Highway Secretary-General, Tohoku Regional Development Bureau, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism), has begun looking at Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture and Minamisoma City and the town of Namie in Fukushima's Soso district, as well as Iwaki City, etc. The group is focusing particularly on the introduction of EVs and of IT/ IoT as infrastructure for the introduction of autonomous driving and other next-generation transportation, developing the necessary local arrangements. This initiative shares much with an acronym frequently used of late: CASE, short for Connected, Autonomous, Shared, and Electric.

Drone Field Practice
WG3 (Drone Field Practice) has been experimenting with freely-rotating spherical drones at Tohoku University, and field practice are now underway using bridges within Sendai City toward utilizing these drones to help with inspection work, such as getting into confined spaces that can't be reached by ordinary drones, engaging in proximity photography, and conducting contact and hammering inspections.

Bridge inspection using a spherical drone Characterized by a rotating spherical shell that softens the shock even if the drone bumps into a bridge, protecting the drone's body and enabling safer, more stable flight. These drones should also be able to be adapted for use with buildings other than bridges.

Bridge inspection using a spherical drone
Characterized by a rotating spherical shell that softens the shock even if the drone bumps into a bridge, protecting the drone's body and enabling safer, more stable flight. These drones should also be able to be adapted for use with buildings other than bridges.

In addition to a field practice at Tatsuzawa Bridge in the Aoba area of Sendai conducted in May 2017, considerations have been underway in 2018 toward enabling steady experiments to be conducted throughout the year. In addition, Drone Tech Lab Consortium Sendai was set up in April 2016 by a private firm wanting to pursue drone utilization, and this conducts activities such as drone races and drone classes to educate the general public about drones and encourage more widespread drone use.

Application of Battery Technologies
WG4 (Application of Battery Technologies) is pushing ahead with a range of activities through its various sub-working groups: the Battery Manufacturing SWG, which is working on the development, manufacturing and dissemination of safe and highly reliable manganese-lithium ion batteries by local small and medium enterprises (SMEs); the Electric Bus Production SWG, which is pursuing electric buses as one avenue for the application of battery technologies; and the Wireless Power Supply SWG, which is engaged in R&D on the wireless power needed to expand the utilization of battery technologies in the future. As one example of the creation of concrete new industries and jobs through a regional initiative, a mass-production plant is scheduled to be built on the grounds of the former Iinogawa Elementary School No. 2 in Ishinomaki City.

A Tohoku University-made lithium ion battery Rather than cobalt, which is high-performance but can generate abnormal heat and catch fire, this battery uses slightly lower-capacity manganese. Tohoku University established this technology as one with no history of fire accidents that also represents a low investment burden for SMEs producing it for the first time, and as a technology that is easy for SMEs to deal with and mass-produce.

A Tohoku University-made lithium ion battery
Rather than cobalt, which is high-performance but can generate abnormal heat and catch fire, this battery uses slightly lower-capacity manganese. Tohoku University established this technology as one with no history of fire accidents that also represents a low investment burden for SMEs producing it for the first time, and as a technology that is easy for SMEs to deal with and mass-produce.

Conclusion

We hope that by sharing information on the various corporate, academic and government initiatives being undertaken and promoting wide-ranging partnership beyond the boundaries of fields and organizations, the Consortium will encourage more horizontal deployment. While advanced technologies such as autonomous driving and drones are certainly eye-catching, steady infrastructure development and industry creation will be vital in properly establishing them. WG4 is currently in the process of creating an industry centered on lithium batteries, and the Consortium will continue to work to bring other component technologies to the point that they can be turned into industries and business.


About the Author
Takahiro Suzuki
Professor, NICHe (New Industry Creation Hatchery Center), Tohoku University

Completed a doctorate at the Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo in 1998. He then became a lecturer and, in 2000, associate professor in the Institute of Industrial Science at the same university. As of 2004, while tackling R&D primarily on robots and ITS as part of the university's Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, he also engaged in areas such as cross-disciplinary scientific communication. In 2010, he was seconded as an advisor to the Industry and Labor Department of the Nagasaki Prefectural Government (Policy Division), working on a project to get EVs and an ITS into the Goto Islands. After returning to The University of Tokyo in 2013, he took up his current post in 2014. While working on various projects with a primary focus on advanced mobility systems, he has also contributed to Sendai's designation as a Regional Revitalization Special Zone and is now engaged in promoting field practice for autonomous driving and other near-future technologies.

Project Outline
The Tohoku University New Industry Creation Hatchery Center gathers a wide range of projects from within academia and provides an environment in which those lecturers serving as project leaders can devote themselves to their research, the aim being to find commercial and business applications for university research and get it out into society. Each project is given a deadline, with an interim evaluation generally conducted in the third year and a final evaluation in the fifth year. The Tohoku Next-Generation Advanced Mobility System Research Project was one of the projects related to autonomous driving, EVs and regional transportation. In 2018, it became the Advanced Logistics Transport System Research Project.


(For the Japanese version of this article)


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