Japan will let self-driving delivery robots roam the streets to combat labor shortages

Amid labor shortages and problems of rural isolation, Japan is relaxing its traffic laws to allow autonomous delivery robots to hit the streets.

Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world, with nearly 30 percent of its residents over the age of 65. Many live in depopulated rural areas that do not have easy access to daily necessities.

A labor shortage in the cities and new rules restricting overtime for truck drivers also make it difficult for companies to meet the demand for deliveries.

Touted as a possible solution are self-driving robots.

“The shortage of workers in the transportation sector will become a challenge in the future,” said Dai Fujikawa, an engineer at electronics giant Panasonic, who is testing delivery robots in Tokyo and nearby Fujisawa.

“I hope that our robots will be used to take over work where necessary and to alleviate the tightness of the labor market,” he told AFP.

Japanese robotics company ZMP is teaming up with behemoths like Japan Post Holdings in its own trials of delivery robots in Tokyo.

His ‘DeliRo’ robot has successfully evaded pedestrians and sold snacks on a street outside Tokyo. When blocked by passersby, it is programmed to show a teary eye.

People in Japan have so far reacted positively to the move.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Naoko Kamimura after buying cough drops from Panasonic’s Hakobo.

“Human shop assistants may feel more reassuring, but robots allow you to shop more casually. Even if there’s nothing you think is worth buying, you can just leave without feeling guilty,” she said.

‘Spread of robots will be gradual’

However, authorities do not believe Japan’s streets will soon be teeming with robots, given pressures to protect human employment.

“We don’t expect drastic changes right away, because jobs are at stake,” said Hiroki Kanda, a Commerce Department official promoting the technology.

Experts admit that the “spread of robots will be more of a gradual process”.

Regulations mean that a speed limit for the robots has been set at 6 km/h to reduce the “chance of serious injury in a crash,” said Yutaka Uchimura, a professor of robotics engineering at the Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT).

Panasonic says its “Hakobo” robot can detect obstacles and autonomously judge when to turn and stop.

It is also monitored at the same time by Fujisawa’s control center, which is automatically alerted via cameras when the robots get stuck or are stopped by obstacles.

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