Cruise robotaxis are headed to Japan

A press release from Cruise, GM, and Honda says that the three companies plan to launch a robotaxi joint venture in Japan starting in 2026. No word if the vehicles will play charming little MIDI tunes when they pick you up, but we can dream.

According to the statement, the yet-to-launch Origin — a dedicated-purpose robotaxi — will be the vehicle that debuts the service. Given the complexities of operating as a foreign business in Japan, it’s not exactly surprising that the three plan to start a new JV company in the market, one that will presumably be tailored and branded to the expectations of Japanese consumers.

As you’re likely aware, Japan operates some of the highest-throughput mass transit systems in the world. But at street level in a dense urban area, chances are most of the cars you’ll see driving around fall into one of two categories: taxis and commercial vehicles. Private car ownership is expensive and impractical in major Japanese cities for most residents, and taxis make up a critical part of mobility — whether last-mile or as transit to hubs like airports and train stations.

Ride-hailing services like Uber have struggled mightily to break into the Japanese market, both because of legal complexities and an extremely powerful domestic taxi lobby. While a venture like Cruise’s would be unlikely to offer major disruption at scale initially, there’s little doubt the aforementioned taxi lobby will try to derail any effort at autonomous rides. Today’s press release doesn’t get into any of the legal or practical hurdles — it’s just a statement that GM, Cruise, and Honda want to go forward with this.

As part of the announcement, an image of a Japanese-market version of the Origin AV was released (seen at the top of the article here). There appear to be some design tweaks to the front of the vehicle — slightly different headlights and a revised roof overhang — as well as an additional set of sensors or signaling devices on the sides of the vehicle not present in earlier renderings. The Japanese-market Origin will still be manufactured in the US, though it seems it will carry Honda badging in Japan.

You can find the press release here.

Electrek’s Take

Cruise unveiled the electric Origin AV back in 2020, and I’ll be the first to admit I thought this thing was a pipe dream at the time. But with both Cruise and Waymo offering reasonably functional (well, mostly) autonomous taxi services today, it doesn’t seem quite so farfetched. Launching in Japan, though? We’ll see how that goes.

From a strictly technical perspective, Japan may be better suited to vehicular autonomy than a country like the US. Road lanes and signage are extremely clear, drivers and pedestrians exercise great care, and roadworks are rigorously demarcated. For a computer, Japanese roads could offer a level of predictability that San Francisco would struggle to match.

But the power of the Japanese taxi lobby is hard to overstate. They successfully strongarmed Uber into working with existing taxi companies in Japan, and the company still doesn’t offer ridesharing in the country. So, the idea of cutting out drivers entirely is unlikely to go over well.

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