Sony wants to bring AI taxi services to Japanese streets

Sony wants to lead a new joint venture to dominate a market already being chased by Toyota, Uber, and others.

Sony plans to lead a new joint venture (JV) designed to develop an artificial intelligence (AI)-based taxi service for Japan.

According to a statement on Tuesday (translated), Sony and six local taxi companies -- Green Cab, International Automobile, Kusumi Transportation, Daiwa Motor Transportation, Checker Cab Radio Cooperative Association, and Hinomaru Transportation -- will form the new business venture.

Sony and the six other firms aim to establish the new JV in coming months.

The new company will develop and operate "dispatch service applications" that will utilize Sony's AI technologies for demand forecasts and similar services.

Sony says that the six companies together control over 10,000 taxis across Tokyo and beyond, and by integrating AI, customer service will be improved by "prepar[ing] the necessary number of taxis when necessary."

AI forecasts of taxi and ride-sharing demands, for example, could be used to increase availability in peak times, while reducing the number on the road when demand is expected to be low.

While this kind of information and predictions can already be achieved by simple data and number crunching, AI could enhance these forecasts and therefore increase efficiency, while reducing the operational cost of the venture.

If successful, the JV could also become a competitor to players already in the ride-hailing industry, including Toyota and SoftBank, a prominent Uber investor.

However, it is expected that AI usage in the ride-hailing space will go further.

According to Sony, the JV will also develop "applications and related services for using dispatch services, utilization of taxi data, provision of payment agency services, and daily support services."

These AI-based systems will eventually be offered to taxi operators nationwide, including one-stop-shop solutions and packages.

Japanese regulation related to autonomous vehicles and ride-hailing services are strict. It is only possible for companies to "match" users to established taxi fleets through mobile applications. Uber, for example, is only allowed to operate as a traditional taxi company and has therefore been unable to expand quickly across the country.

Technology giants, however, are still keen to make their mark in this space, and by utilizing AI to improve taxi service infrastructure rather than pushing for autonomous fleets or fully mobile systems which use non-traditional and professional drivers, they can develop relationships which, should the rules change, will be invaluable.

SoftBank, Uber's investor, is one such company which has already spotted the potential business value of bringing new ride-hailing services to the country.

See also: Dossier: The leaders in self-driving cars

Earlier this month, the company, together with Didi Chuxing, said that they will roll out a taxi matching service in Japan. Toyota has also recently secured a stake in domestic ride-hailing service JapanTaxi.

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