FUJISAWA, Kanagawa AFP-Jiji — Excuse me, coming through, a four-wheeled robot chirps as it dodges pedestrians on a street outside Tokyo, part of an experiment that businesses hope will tackle labor shortages and rural isolation.
From April, revised traffic laws will allow self-driving delivery robots to navigate streets across Japan.
Proponents hope that machines could help elderly people in rural areas get access to goods, while also addressing a shortage of delivery workers in a country with chronic labor shortages.
Safety concerns are some of the challenges to overcome, according to Hisashi Taniguchi, president of Tokyo-based robotics firm ZMP.
They are still newcomers to human society, so it's natural that they are seen with a bit of discomfort, he told AFP.
The robots won't be able to intervene with humans monitoring remotely and able to intervene.
Taniguchi said it is important that robots are humble and lovable to inspire confidence.
ZMP has partnered with behemoths such as Japan Post Holdings in its trials of delivery robots in Tokyo.
Its DeliRo robot aims for a charming look, with big, expressive eyes that can be made teary in sadness if pedestrians block its way.
He said that every kid around here knows its name.
There is a purpose behind the cuteness.
Japan has one of the world's oldest populations, with nearly 30% of its citizens aged over 65. Many rural areas are depopulated and lack easy access to basic necessities.
It is difficult for businesses to keep up with the new rules limiting overtime for truck drivers and labor shortages in cities that make it hard to keep up with the pandemic-fueled e-commerce and delivery demands.
In the future, the shortage of workers in transport will be a challenge, said engineer Dai Fujikawa of the electronics giant Panasonic, which is trialing delivery robots in Tokyo and Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture.
He told AFP that we hope our robots will be used to take over where needed and help alleviate the labor crunch.
Similar robots are already in use in countries such as Britain and China, but there are concerns in Japan about everything from collisions to theft.
Yutaka Uchimura, a professor at the Shibaura Institute of Technology, said that the maximum speed of 6 kph is relatively small.
He said that it would be extremely worrying if a robot moves off the sidewalk and collides with a car if there was a discrepancy between the pre-installed location data and the actual environment.
Panasonic says its Hakobo robot can judge autonomously when it is able to turn and detect obstacles, such as construction and approaching bikes, and stop.