Service areas face challenge from self-driving cars

Japan news September 2017

The service areas (SAs) that sit beside Japan’s toll expressways can be said to have a captive audience, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go out of their way to appeal to customers. The 28 August edition of Weekly Playboy paid a visit to Kanagawa Prefecture’s Ebina SA, situated on the Tomei Expressway, which serves as the main east–west artery.

It happens to be the last stop before reaching Tokyo, or the first when leaving the capital and, thanks to its favourable location, boasts the highest sales turnover of all the nation’s SAs. On holidays, Ebina welcomes as many as 60,000 Nagoya-bound drivers and passengers per day, in addition to another 40,000 who are Tokyo bound.

Hungry travellers at Ebina SA have the option of dining at 10 different restaurants at a food section named Umai Mono Yokocho (tasty food alley). Guides aboard the many tourist buses that visit Ebina SA have been credited with promoting locally made products—such as melon-flavoured bread—sold at the souvenir concessions by announcing it to their wards before a comfort stop. The area also has access to a nearby theme park and other leisure facilities, including hot springs.

Not far down the road, however, will be the introduction of automated cars. Will this result in more people bypassing SAs?

“Certainly, automated driving will reduce the load that drivers feel while motoring on expressways”, said Sataki Yoshihiro, a professor at Takasaki City University of Economics and author of a manual for expressway drivers. “But they will need to use the toilet. And, even if they aren’t driving, they’ll still want to stretch their legs after sitting for long hours in the car.

“If anything, since any pleasures from motor vehicle operation are likely to decline, visits to service areas will perform an important function of substituting for those pleasures”.