MUJI and Finnish startup Sensible 4 take self-driving innovation from Finland to Japan

Japanese brand MUJI joined forces with Sensible 4 in 2017 to test the world’s first all-weather autonomous bus on Finnish roads. Now the partners have taken the GACHA bus to Japan too, aiming to address one of the country’s key demographic challenges: a shortage of drivers. 

© Justus Hirvi – Bonzu & MUJI
Challenge

Japan’s declining birthrate is causing a shortage of public-transit workers, particularly outside of urban areas. Yet the country’s high share of over-65s still need transportation for the last mile to the home. Self-driving buses are seen as part of the solution.

Solution

Japanese lifestyle-brand MUJI wants to serve communities with services that make their lives more pleasant. Finnish startup Sensible 4 is a leader in autonomous-driving technology. Helsinki Partners brought the two companies together to create GACHA: the world’s first all-weather self-driving bus.

Result

After piloting on Finnish roads, MUJI and Sensible 4 have now taken the GACHA bus to Japan for a trial project near Tokyo. Their cooperation is an excellent example of an international company partnering with a Finnish technology developer for mutual benefit. 

A minimalist Japanese lifestyle brand partnering with an autonomous-driving startup from Finland – at first glance it may seem an unusual match, but take a look under the hood and it starts to make sense.

The project goes back to when MUJI began preparations for launching its 3,600 m2 flagship store in Helsinki. Opened in November 2019, the store is MUJI’s largest in Europe. It’s an important local attraction for residents and visitors alike, so MUJI received a lot of support from the City of Helsinki – including through Helsinki Partners – to ease its entry into Finland. This is how representatives from MUJI came to be introduced to Sensible 4, a Finnish startup that develops all-weather self-driving vehicles.

MUJI is much more than a retailer and does a lot of different things, including building hotels and holiday cottages. The company is doing a lot around social interactions and community involvement. They also want to be involved in new mobility projects and bringing sustainable solutions to people. This is where our visions align.

Tommi Rimpiläinen – Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Sensible 4

Startup-corporate collaboration drives smart mobility

MUJI and Sensible 4 set about combining their respective expertise to create GACHA: the world’s first self-driving bus made to function in all weather conditions. MUJI led on the minimalist design and functional aesthetic of the bus, while Sensible 4 brought the positioning, navigation and obstacle-detection technology that allows it to hit the roads without a driver – come rain or shine. 

Autonomous vehicles struggle to cope when the weather is challenging, as raindrops or snowflakes can block the sensors. Sensible 4 has built some smart algorithms that provide tolerance for these kinds of conditions. This is essentially the reason for our existence; no other self-driving technology provider is as specialized as we are at difficult weather conditions.

Tommi Rimpiläinen – Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Sensible 4

A prototype of the GACHA bus was unveiled in Helsinki during March 2019. The partners had intended to roll-out the service to the general public in three Finnish cities through 2020, but then Covid-19 restrictions hit and the uncertainty caused plans to be temporarily shelved.


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Self-driving vehicle pilot in Japan

Now the partners are ramping up the project again – this time in Japan. GACHA will be operating on a 1,2 km route in Chiba (a city just east of Tokyo) in a two-week trial where the public can experience autonomous driving as part of a broader urban development initiative.  

The move comes as Sensible 4 announced the opening of a new Tokyo office and outlined the importance of Japan in its internationalization strategy. The country has the world’s largest share of aging people, with over 65-year-olds representing some 30% of the population. This is shrinking the Japanese labor pool and resulting in a shortage of mass-transit drivers, particularly outside of major urban centers. Sensible 4 sees GACHA being part of the solution. 

We believe the big demand for shuttles like GACHA will be in the so-called ‘last mile’ to the home. Trunk networks will continue to funnel passengers into central bus or train stations, but people need mobility services for the short onward hop to their destination. The older you are, the more important this is.

Tommi Rimpiläinen – Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Sensible 4

Ahead of regulations on autonomous vehicles

Despite the earlier delay in GACHA’s development timeline, the partners continue to be ahead of the market for autonomous-driving services. They’ve been helped by the fact that Finland and Japan are among just a few countries with regulations that allow self-driving vehicles to be tested on public roads.

Helsinki was in fact one of the first cities in the world to pilot self-driving robot buses. The city authorities aim to create the world’s most effective transport services, and autonomous vehicles are seen as part of the solution. Much of this work is done in public-private-people partnerships that bring together companies, residents and other stakeholders.

Safety legislation for autonomous vehicles varies widely from country to country, so wherever GACHA goes it needs to be modified to meet local requirements. Sensible 4 also has projects in Norway, Germany and Switzerland.

As this is a new industry, some of the components needed in the vehicles are not yet at the automotive-grade level. This is the main reason we don’t see autonomous shuttles being deployed widely across the world. As the technology develops, we’re positioning ourselves to get to the market as quickly as we can. The first use cases will be seen within a couple of years and then rolled out more widely.

Tommi Rimpiläinen – Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Sensible 4

Rimpiläinen says the partnership between MUJI and Sensible 4 is going strong, with the two companies sharing more than just business goals.

There are quite a few similarities between Japanese and Finnish culture, so we understand each other well. This cultural fit has been important, especially when it comes to the work ethic. – In Finland we have a great respect for nature, as the Japanese do too. This comes out in the design of GACHA and the way natural materials are used. Our sustainability goals align very well.

Tommi Rimpiläinen – Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Sensible 4
© Juhana Hurtig

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