According to a report in Shiotsu Autotrade Japan, Hitachi Ltd. has recently unveiled an electric car that operates without a driver. Unlike Google's Driverless Car, where users speak to the machine to control the vehicle, the Hitachi auto-taxi doesn't require any human-to-machine interaction once a location is plugged into the car's GPS. No pedals, no wheel–only a finger is needed to get from A to B.
The company is calling its invention ROPITS–Robot for Personal Intelligent Transport System–and is designed for elderly people and disabled individuals, as well as for potentially transporting goods. It sounds like one of the first commodified public transportation drones.
The destination and arrival time can be toggled using a tablet computer with GPS, but what makes this mobile bot especially unique is that it is small enough to drive on sidewalks, something Google or Toyota's i-Road cannot do. Now, whether they should is another question altogether.
It's a one-seater that goes a maximum of six miles per hour, and according to Shiotsu, "this tiny car is equipped with a laser distance sensor, special stereoscopic camera and laser range finder" to prevent collisions with pedestrians. A six mph collision would not be lethal, but it could still hurt.
ROPITS's laser sensor is a much simplified version of Google's driverless technology, the latter of which has laser sensors on the roof, radar sensors on the bumpers, and cameras on the windshields. Google's autonomous car has covered over 500,000 miles so far, including on highways in the US, while ROPITS has only been tested in Tsukuba, Japan, reportedly without a whole lot of road testing.
Hitachi is also working on making the car functional via smartphone, forcing us to ask the question what could happen if some clever hackers got control of the metaphorical wheel. But if robotic transportation is the future, robo-taxis the size of shopping carts are likely to be a part of it. The car is expected to be publicly unveiled at the Robotics and Mechatronics Conferences in Japan this May.