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Conversations with taxi drivers can be incredibly insightful or just plain awkward. While some people prefer to mumble a few pleasantries and check their email, others have given audience to riveting life stories. But for better or for worse, human interaction between drivers and passengers may soon be a thing of the past.

Robot Taxi, a joint venture between Japanese mobile gaming company DeNA and automotive technology developer ZMP, has unveiled a prototype for a driverless taxi. The company will begin testing the cars next year in Kanagawa Prefecture, located just south of Tokyo.

Fifty local residents have been recruited to try out the Robot Taxi, which will transport them from their homes to a grocery store about three kilometers (two miles) away. An employee of the company will ride in the taxi during the trial period as a precautionary measure. The autonomous car technology is highly advanced, combining GPS, millimeter wave sensors, image analysis and a stereoscopic vision system.

While some might argue that driverless taxis only serve to (literally) fuel our dependence on automobiles, the Robot Taxi is being marketed as a much-needed service for the elderly in rural areas. Japan has the oldest population in the world — more than a quarter of its inhabitants are over the age of 65. By 2055, this number is set to increase to 40 per cent when the population will decline from 127 million to 90 million.

In the video released by the company this week, the Robot Taxi arrives at the home of an elderly couple living in a remote, mountainous region. They approach the car hand-in-hand, and in the next shot the van door closes behind them automatically. They smile at one another, and the car takes off along a country road — while the steering wheel twitches ever so slightly. It’s a romanticized version of what the experience might actually be like (especially for technology-averse older adults) but it drives home the fact that this is a much-needed convenience for Japan’s ageing population.

The company hopes to have a fleet of Robot Taxis ready in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They’re also working on developing a prototype for a driverless bus, which raises even more questions, such as “Will riders actually move to the back if a robot tells them to?” Only time (and techology) will tell.

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