How BOLDLY’s Autonomous Buses are Revitalizing Japan’s Small Communities

How BOLDLY’s Autonomous Buses are Revitalizing Japan’s Small Communities

Championing its concept of “a world where all things, information and minds are connected,” SoftBank Corp. (TOKYO: 9434) is placing priority on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To do this, SoftBank is working to solve social issues through its business activities, with Creating New Business through Open Innovation being one area of focus.

BOLDLY Inc., an autonomous driving systems development and service subsidiary of SoftBank Corp. (TOKYO: 9434) that is driving the adoption of autonomous shuttles in Japan, is one SoftBank company that is addressing social issues with new businesses.

Atsuto Suyama, BOLDLY’s CTO, and Yasumasa Yonei, who works in BOLDLY’s Market Initiation Department, discussed their company’s progress and initiatives.

Atsuto Suyama

Atsuto Suyama, CTO

Leveraging his engineering experience gained previously at Yahoo Japan Corporation, Suyama spearheaded the development of BOLDLY’s operation management system called "Dispatcher.”

Yasumasa Yonei

Yasumasa Yonei
Business Development Section
Market Initiation Department

Yonei joined BOLDLY in 2020 and is in charge of researching overseas markets for the introduction of new vehicles.

What can be done about disappearing transport options?

Suyama: When I returned to my hometown in the countryside, I noticed local buses ran less frequently, only running in the morning and evening. Living in an urban area like Tokyo, it’s easy to overlook the fact that bus services in small communities are being discontinued at a rapid rate due to a shortage of bus drivers.

At the same time, senior citizens are being encouraged to hand in their driving licenses. When buses are phased out and they can't drive, daily outings become a challenge.

At BOLDLY, we're addressing the serious transportation and mobility challenges emerging throughout Japan by advocating for the adoption of autonomous vehicles, with the aim of updating Japan’s mobility options across the board.


Suyama: In Japan’s rapidly aging society, I believe autonomous driving is a key to resolving transportation issues. Ever since around 2013, when I started noticing a significant global shift due to advancements in autonomous driving technologies, I proposed related business plans within SoftBank. Through this process, I met our CEO, Yuki Saji.

Although my initial proposals were rejected during document reviews, I held to my conviction that autonomous driving could contribute significantly to solving Japan's societal issues. In 2020, in Sakai Town, Ibaraki Prefecture, we realized the country's first-ever practical use of autonomous buses in a municipality. With the support of local residents, this implementation has served as a crucial mode of transportation for over three years. Recently, we've imported a state-of-the-art autonomous EV shuttle called “MiCa” from Estonia and are pushing its adoption in Japan.

Of course, updating mobility options requires corresponding infrastructure. With a vision of creating towns where autonomous vehicles can run their routes effectively, we’re working hand-in-hand with local governments, providing everything from vehicles to on-the-ground driving support through our operational management system called “Dispatcher.”

The autonomous vehicle operation management system Dispatcher, developed and provided by BOLDLY

The autonomous vehicle operation management system Dispatcher, developed and provided by BOLDLY

Searching the globe to bring the right autonomous vehicles to Japan

Yonei: Our CEO wanted to quickly provide solutions to those without transportation options. We began searching for the right vehicle, but since Japan didn't have autonomous vehicles for sale, we had to look abroad. In 2017, we discovered and started importing the ARMA autonomous bus manufactured by NAVYA (a French company specializing in autonomous buses at the time). Today, it has a track record of operations all over Japan.

However, like the various sizes and speeds of the cars we use daily, one vehicle type like ARMA can't cater to every region's needs. To meet diverse regional requirements, we constantly research different vehicles, sourcing information from international news sites and taking fact finding trips. It's essential to judge vehicles based on their ability to sense obstacles and stop automatically. But you can't truly understand a car's comfort and speed without actually riding in it.

Photo taken while conducting research on Estonia, home of the new autonomous EV “MiCa”

Photo taken while conducting research on Estonia, home of the new autonomous EV “MiCa”

Yonei: Having lived in India and Australia as a child, I've always been aware of the differences in basic amenities across countries and how fortunate Japan is. I had an interest in hydrogen as a potential energy source, given the depletion of our natural resources. I initially joined a heavy industry manufacturer, but my role was in procuring motorcycle components, which was a bit unsatisfying at the time. Now, I feel my experience is contributing to society. It's gratifying when I hear elderly people say, “With this autonomous vehicle, I can give up my driver’s license.”

Searching the globe to bring the right autonomous vehicles to Japan

Autonomous buses for sustainable community development

Suyama: As I mentioned earlier, resolving transportation challenges in various regions goes hand-in-hand with community planning. We want to provide safe and reliable autonomous buses as a means for sustainable community development.

Under this vision, BOLDLY's Dispatcher not only allows remote monitoring and operation; it also ensures safety with a dual communication system, allowing uninterrupted operation even if one system faces issues.

Yonei: Just as there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for autonomous vehicles, electricity isn't the only energy source for cars. If we consider hydrogen as another source, we’ll have more options in the future.

We want to eliminate the disadvantages faced by people without access to transport. If they can pursue their dreams or simply go about their shopping because they have mobility options, our efforts are meaningful. As pioneers in the autonomous driving industry, we cherish our “do-whatever-it-takes” ethos. By passionately focusing on the challenges ahead of us, I believe we can work to realize a society envisioned by the SDGs.

(Posted on December 18, 2023)
by SoftBank News Editors