From 2016 around 50 driverless robot taxis will be introduced to the streets of Japan.

The vehicles will be driving around Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo, and are part of a pilot scheme for a broader service which is scheduled for nationwide launch in 2020, writes Steve Mollman for Quartz.

Driverless Robot Taxis Come To Japan

Pilot scheme for self-driving taxis coming to Japan

Robot Taxi, the company behind the initiative, is a joint venture between mobile-internet firm DeNA and vehicle-technology developer ZMP. In May the pair announced that they would start introducing self-driving taxis and buses to the streets of Japan.

In order to navigate the roads, Robot Taxi uses GPS, millimeter-wave radar, stereo vision cameras and image analysis. Taxis will travel distances of around 3 kilometers during the trial, with part of the journey along major roads, and company staff will be in the cars so they can take over if needed.

Robot Taxi announced details of the trial on October 1 in the prefecture capital, Yokohama. Among the attendees was Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and a vice minister in the current government.

“There are a lot of people who say it’s impossible,” he said, referring to driverless cars, “but I think this will happen faster than people expect.”

Japan playing catch-up in self-driving technology

While many U.S. and European companies have been working on self-driving cars for years, Japan has been remarkably slow to develop the technology. Some critics believe that Japan is in danger of losing out to foreign companies such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Ford and Tesla in the race to build a safe, reliable, self-driving car.

Even non-automakers are excited by the technology, with Google and Uber working on their own driverless technology. Rumors continue to swirl that Apple will soon release a self-driving car as well.

Another Japanese company with an interest in the technology is Toyota, which is investing $50 million in autonomous-vehicle research with Stanford and MIT. Yesterday company executives announced a new safety device that will enable vehicles and roadway infrastructure to communicate with each other, enabling partially autonomous driving.

It seems to be a matter of time until self-driving cars become a reality on city streets, and Japan has some catching up to do to stay ahead of the curve.