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Metropolitan Rent-a-Car System Being Tested

February 1, 2001
In any country in the world, big cities face the downsides of an automobile society everyday: Traffic jams, air pollution, and lack of parking are a headache for many people. To help eliminate these problems, a unique metropolitan rent-a-car system has been undergoing testing in Japan since 1999.

Experiment Begins in Yokohama
The experiment is being conducted by the Association of Electronic Technology for Automobile Traffic and Driving, a nonprofit foundation located in Tokyo. The association began the experiment in a new business district in Yokohama--Minato Mirai 21, an area of 186 hectares (460 acres). Automaker Suzuki Motor presented 30 electric cars to be used by 100 registered users from 20 companies in the area as they visit clients or collect payments. Since all of the cars are owned and managed by the association, this system can be called "public car sharing." Public car sharing is indeed quite different from carpools in North America and Europe, which involve only temporary sharing of private cars.

The cars have been placed at four stations within the test area, each of which is equipped with machines for charging the batteries. In place of a car key, small transmitters have been distributed to the registered users in advance. Upon arriving at a station, a user simply turns on the transmitter, which automatically connects to the control center's computer using a cellular phone network. If use of the car is approved by the computer, the car door unlocks automatically. These cars can run between 30 and 50 kilometers (about 20 to 30 miles) on one charge, and the control center sends drivers such information as battery levels and the distance back to the station.

The aim of this rent-a-car system is to alleviate traffic jams, pollution, and parking problems in the city through sharing of the electric cars. Another aim is to allow businesses to cut down on the costs of cars that they need to keep on hand.

Test Area Widens
The association began implementation of the second phase of the trial in January 2000. As the test area widened from MM 21 to include the nearby area around Kannai Station in downtown Yokohama, the number of cars, participants, and stations grew. Nissan Motor presented an additional 20 smaller electric cars into the study, bringing the total to 50. The number of registered users grew to 250 employees from 40 companies. The number of stations was increased to 10 and a new system in which the driver is free to return the car to any station, a formula which allows for a one-way trip, was introduced.

Then, in June, the third phase of the trial began. This time the test area widened yet again to include Shin Yokohama Station, a Shinkansen bullet train stop, which is quite far from the city center. This allowed participants to use the cars when making long-distance business trips. Although the number of cars remained unchanged at 50, due to the increased convenience, the number of registered users expanded to 450 employees from 100 companies.

It has become clear through the three phases of the trial that the biggest impediment to this system's expansion is the actual cost of the cars themselves. Electric cars are still expensive, costing about 4 million yen (about 33,000 U.S. dollars at 120 yen to the dollar). Nevertheless, the hoped-for reductions in traffic jams, pollution, and parking problems were achieved. Many local government officials from around the country have been coming to MM 21 to see the program for themselves.

Housewives Targeted in Tokyo Suburb
While the experiment in Yokohama targeted businesses, housewives are the focus of a similar trial aimed at individuals in Tokyo's Inagi City that began in October 1999. Like the trial in Yokohama, this one was also begun by the Association of Electronic Technology for Automobile Traffic and Safety. Daihatsu Motor provided 30 small electric cars to be used by 100 housewives. The test area comprises Koyodai, Nagamine, and Wakabadai in Tama New Town, a residential development area in southwest Tokyo, and initially included five stations.

The housewives use the cars mainly for driving their husbands between home and the train station, chauffeuring kids to and from kindergarten, or shopping at the supermarket. Because they can use the cars virtually anytime, it is almost like having their own car, only parked a short distance away. In an area where obtaining parking space is extremely difficult, using these rental cars instead of owning a car (or in some cases a second car) has proven extremely popular. Although the number of cars has not changed, the number of stations has grown to eight, servicing some 250 users.

The Japanese government plans to introduce the Intelligent Transport System, comprised of an advanced information and telecommunications network connecting roads and vehicles with the aim of easing traffic and eliminating accidents. Over the next two decades, 20 different services will be developed, one of which is a metropolitan rent-a-car system. With the hope of swiftly implementing this system, the association plans to continue tests of the system through 2001.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.