Enriching People's Lives Through Mobility Services TEAM UP for a Sustainable World
The AI-driven On-demand Bus Service "KnowRoute" (3)
It has been about a year since Munakata City in Japan's Fukuoka Prefecture launched its trial runs of the AI-driven "KnowRoute" on-demand bus service. What have we learned from these trials, in terms of the service's future potential? What will the future of mobility look like? This is part two of our roundtable discussion between project members from Munakata City, MC, and Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co., Ltd. (Nishitetsu).
- Roundtable Participants
Hiroshi Takasaki (Head of Urban Redevelopment, Munakata City)
Tadaharu Uchida (Deputy Head of Urban Redevelopment, Munakata City)
Takehiro Fujioka (Next Mobility EVP, CSO; on secondment from MC)
Hirofumi Matsumura (Next Mobility Operation Manager; on secondment from Nishitetsu)
Kenichi Akimoto (Next Mobility Sales and Business Planning Manager; on secondment from MC)
- Takashi Horiuchi (GLOBE+ Editor in Chief)
A Win-Win Relationship with Local Regions and Authorities
—— The "KnowRoute" project is great example of a partnership between those most familiar with regional challenges, i.e. the local authorities and citizens, and those with the know-how and resources to help address those challenges, i.e. those from the business community. Your ability to work well with one another is perhaps the main reason this service has been successful, but I would like to hear from both sides about where you feel its true benefits and potential lie.
Takasaki The community buses and other public transit systems that Munakata City rolled out in the past were conceived by the municipal authorities, but "KnowRoute" is different because it was proposed by Next Mobility*. It is difficult for city governments to use things like AI-controlled dispatch systems and software programs without any outside help, which is why I think we were able to make this first-ever collaboration with the business community happen. * Next Mobility Co., Ltd. is a joint venture between MC and Nishitetsu.
Akimoto Thanks to support from Munakata City, Next Mobility was able to delve quite deeply into this region, and we are delighted that our partnership with the local authorities has resulted in this new business. Regarding the problems facing the region and concerns shared by its citizens, we make a point of listening carefully to what the authorities and residents are actually saying, because we know that if we hope to make this service even better, then we need to be completely in tune with needs on the ground. In my opinion, that is what makes our relationship with the government and people of Munakata City so valuable.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Next Mobility possesses all the know-how needed to run an on-demand bus service. This includes everything from planning the business, rolling out the bus-dispatching system and securing the buses and drivers, to setting up the meeting points, gaining consent from the local community, handling the marketing work and refining and upgrading operations.
All of this know-how will ensure that we remain a very competitive option when other municipals throughout Japan consider adopting similar services. Solving our customers' problems leads to success in our businesses, so we will continue to place great faith in robust partnerships like this one.
Our relationship with Munakata City and its residents is not going to end once we have provided them with all the systems to run "KnowRoute." Even after the service is fully up and running, until it has fully taken root we will continue to work alongside the folks here and listen to their needs. Hopefully "KnowRoute" will become just another part of life for the citizens of Munakata City, but there will still be opportunities thereafter to address new challenges and create even better services. That is the thinking that defines Next Mobility and its strengths.
As you know, I am on secondment at Next Mobility from Nishitetsu, so I can speak from the passenger road transportation company's perspective as well. Even before this service was conceived, Nishitetsu had been on the lookout for ways to continue meeting public-transit needs in Japan's more rural communities. We knew that any viable solution would have to involve more than Nishitetsu's own bus service.
This business has been that solution. It has made me realize how discussing new forms of public transportation with local authorities like those from Munakata City can open up so many possibilities. I believe that if we can combine Nishitetsu's experience and know-how with on-demand bus services and other next-generation mobility solutions, then we can play an important role in creating the most convenient cities possible. Basically, the "KnowRoute" service has identified new value for Nishitetsu, and I am looking forward to our promoting this business in Fukuoka as a model that can be followed nationwide by other local governments and transportation providers.
Growing Possibilities in Mobility Connections Between Hospitals, Shops and Other Amenities
—— That is a good point, as "KnowRoute" has really put Munakata City on the map here in Japan. The service has already attracted quite a bit of attention from other municipalities across the country.
Yes, these trials in Munakata City are raising more and more awareness of "KnowRoute." People are expressing surprise that today's AI is capable of running an on-demand bus service with such a large ridership, and I think we are starting to convince people that the service can actually be an effective alternative to city buses.
However, one thing we are always stressing to the municipal authorities is that an AI-driven, on-demand bus service is a just one option of the solutions. A question that we need to ask ourselves is whether changes in mobility are really the answer to each region's problems, and even if they are, is an on-demand bus service the best option? My recommendation to local governments is that they keep those points in mind.
We have indeed fielded a lot of inquiries from city administrators across Japan, and many of them have come to Munakata City to check out the service for themselves. They have been particularly interested in how we managed to get the local residents and taxi companies on board (no pun intended).
This is a good question, but its answer will depend on each region's characteristics and the business's day-to-day associations with its taxi companies and the users of public transportation. What worked in Munakata City to win them over will not necessarily work somewhere else. Those who plan on introducing the service need to adopt a tailored approach, so that it can be customized to meet the needs of each region and its inhabitants.
—— How do you envision the "KnowRoute" business evolving from here on?
The concept of mobility as a service (MaaS) is becoming increasingly widespread, so we need to think about how an on-demand bus service can be connected to other forms of public transportation. We also need to explore ways of improving the service by integrating aspects of other businesses outside the transportation sector, such as information on hospital hours, sales campaigns at local shops, and so on.
I think it would be great if "KnowRoute" eventually evolved beyond mobility into a multi-industry services platform.
Creating Vibrant Future Societies Where All Can Travel in Comfort
—— What do you think is in store for mobility, and how will its innovations reshape our societies?
Fujioka Mobility is plagued by problems nowadays. We are seeing more public-transit providers losing money on certain routes, fewer qualified drivers, more cash-strapped municipalities, and aging populaces who are losing their means of getting around. Solving those problems is where future mobility services are going to generate value, so the more of those services that appear, the better off societies are going to be.
Takasaki In societies with declining populations, it will be up to citizens to determine which municipalities survive. Munakata City's "compact-plus-network" vision was conceived to ensure that it remains one of the chosen. We want this city to be one whose amenities and attractions are all connected by public transportation, which will not only make it a convenient place to live and visit, but also minimize its carbon footprint. This is why we continue to look for the best ways to marry "KnowRoute" with community buses and other options in public mobility.
Nowadays, all we need is an Internet connection and we can do just about anything from home, but we are all human, and humans need to get out and about to socialize and be active.
With Japan's population aging more rapidly, it is getting harder for many of our citizens to get around, which is why mobility solutions are becoming so much more important. I want our company to continue doing its best to build cities where all can travel or simply enjoy a nice walk with ease and comfort.
I feel the same way. At Nishitetsu, part of our corporate philosophy is "to provide confidence, comfort and enjoyment through our businesses." New mobility services like on-demand buses and self-driving vehicles are challenging, but in my opinion, our ultimate mission is to pursue mobility services that can deliver not only the people to the places, but also peace-of-mind to the people.
In addition, I would like us to work with the regions to make our services more comfortable and appealing, as we strive to build ideal public-transit systems and communities.
I think that ultimately, what we are trying to do is make people happier through mobility.
As Mr. Uchida alluded to, more people are unable to go out and meet people and experience new things because they simply have no way of getting around. If that is the only reason that people are being denied opportunities to truly enjoy what life has to offer, then I think we would all agree that is a terrible shame.
Providing people with the kind of user-friendly mobility solutions that have the power to enrich all of our lives. We will continue to make that our aim and do our part in building future societies.
- * The interviews conducted for the purpose of this article were carried out in accordance with pandemic-related measures. Masks were only removed for photographs.