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New use of probe data helps speed up Japan's recovery


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Truck drivers could not have delivered the necessities of life to evacuees who lost their homes after the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami without knowing which roads were clear of debris.

Road information from cars that had already driven in the coastal area of the Tohoku region was helpful for those who were to come later to continue delivering food, blankets and other goods for months.

ITS Japan, a nonprofit organization promoting intelligent transportation systems (ITS), made the above situation possible by compiling so-called probe data from various automakers. The data included information such as the roads driven by the vehicles.

“I heard from truck drivers who used the data that the system was really useful,” said Masahiro Matsunaga, a director of the Tokyo Route Truck Conference Association. He suggested that it would have been even better if the data showed the breakdown of the size of trucks that had driven each road.

The probe cars have data-sending functions installed in their navigation systems. Drivers who volunteer to offer the data obtain the function when they purchase sophisticated types of navigation systems. Currently, approximately one in every several hundred cars is a probe car in the Tohoku area, while the rate is higher in urban areas.

ITS Japan had originally anticipated probe data to be used to mitigate traffic jams and notify drivers of spots with frequent accidents as the data also show where probe cars put on the brakes or stopped.

But soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake, ITS Japan began working on using probe data to provide road information to drivers delivering aid goods.

Individual carmakers had already developed a system in which drivers share probe data. And they were in the midst of developing the system into a unified platform for vehicles made by different automakers before the quake.

That's where ITS Japan came in. Consolidating the system from multiple companies was essential because more probe data give more precise information to drivers.

“There had been a discussion of unifying the probe data platform, but it takes a long time to reach agreements among multiple companies that are rivals,” said Yasumasa Murai, senior vice president and the secretary general of ITS Japan.

“But we thought it would be helpful if drivers who go to Tohoku know the road information,” he said.

Quick collaboration

On March 12, 2011, the day after the massive quake and tsunami, ITS Japan requested related companies such as Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and car navigation system maker Pioneer Corp. to provide it with probe data.

On the same day, Honda and Pioneer began providing probe data to users of their products. On March 16, Toyota began providing probe data for its customers.

Then finally on March 19, after one exhausting week of making arrangements, ITS Japan began providing consolidated probe data compiled from Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Pioneer. Drivers get the data from either the car navigation systems in their cars or ITS Japan's website via smartphones or personal computers.

“We were really busy until March 19. Automakers were also busy with this and many other things after the disaster. They also must have worked hard,” Murai said.

On April 28, 2011, ITS Japan stopped providing probe data to the public in the Tohoku region due to declining demand as drivers already became aware of which roads were clear of debris by then.

Overseas demand

ITS Japan has joined a task force with governmental ministries and agencies to promote the practical use of probe data on a daily basis. The task force has decided to set up model cities for the project. One such city is Aomori in northern Japan, where heavy snow often blocks roads in winter. The Aomori project, which is considering the possibility of using the probe data, will start around this June.

ITS Japan hopes the technology and knowhow of making use of probe data can be applied to other countries.

“There should be demand for probe technology in case of tsunami and other natural disasters in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other coastal countries,” said Makoto Otsuki, senior vice president of ITS Japan in charge of market promotion.

Also, ITS Japan promotes many other types of car-related technology, in which Japan can be a world leader.

For example, cooperative adaptive cruise control, or CACC, is a technology that optimizes the distance between cars to avoid traffic jams, one of the technologies to be highlighted during the ITS World Congress in Tokyo in October. A study shows traffic jams will be greatly mitigated if the percentage of cars equipped with the CACC technology reaches 30 percent, Otsuki said.

Produced by The Japan Times