Walkman Maker Gets in on Ride-Hailing

Sony to Tap Artificial Intelligence to Improve Taxi Services

After years of neglect, Japan’s lacklustre ride-hailing industry is suddenly seeing a lot of activity.

Sony, the brand synonymous with consumer electronics products like the Walkman, PlayStation and high-end TVs, plans to lead a new Japanese effort to create a taxi-hailing system based on artificial intelligence.

The company says it will develop technology that will predict demand for taxis to ensure that the right number of vehicles are on the road at any particular time. The resulting service will actually be a joint venture between Sony, Daiwa Motor Transportation, Hinomaru Kotsu, Kokusai Motorcars, Green Cab and the Checker Cab group. These transportation-related companies have 10,000 cars between them.

Despite lacking experience in the ride-hailing market, Sony does have a long history in machine learning, particularly for pet projects such as its Aibo robot dog. In 2017, the company opened access to its deep learning software tools, hoping to attract developers of artificial intelligence solutions.

Sony isn’t the only company vying for Japan’s nascent taxi-hailing market. Last week, JapanTaxi announced a partnership with Toyota that will see the car-maker invest $70 million in Nihon Kotsu, one of the country’s largest taxi operators with close to 60,000 taxis that’s also working on a dispatch system powered by artificial intelligence.

At Mobile World Congress 2017, mobile operator DoCoMo showed a system that exploits artificial intelligence to forecast demand for taxis in different areas of Tokyo. The operator applied its own data on the mass movement of people, blended with historic information from Tokyo’s taxis, to feed artificial intelligence models that take account of events, weather and other things in the city that affect demand for this transport service. The results were impressive: drivers using the system reported a rise of almost 50 percent in revenue compared with those that didn’t adopt the platform (see Mobile World Congress 2017: Business IoT, Big Data and AI).

Uber is also in talks to offer dispatch systems to taxi providers including Japan’s Daiichi Koutsu Sangyo. The latter had already revealed plans to team up with Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing company. Uber hasn’t been able to launch its trademark service in the country as Japan has, in principle, banned the use of privately owned vehicles for ride-hailing services.

Smartphones have disrupted many markets and the taxi business is definitely one of them. It’s an industry that had seen limited innovation over decades and suddenly faces an avalanche of change, despite regulatory efforts to slow developments.

Sony isn’t so much hopping on a bandwagon as demonstrating its talents. It’s a company that itself has dealt with disruption and changed over time. Sony is no longer a struggling maker of consumer electronics, but rather a leading technology company. It has become a top supplier of components to smartphone makers and is also a major name in the content business. Sony’s move to become a player in modern-day transportation is further evidence that it continues to evolve.