Self-driving car technology has come a long way in a very short space of time: since Google  et al. kicked off their autonomous automobile programmes, the idea of letting robots take the wheel has become more and more plausible. And now a fleet of self-driving taxis is scheduled to take to the roads in Japan as early as next year. 

As The Wall Street Journal reports, a partnership between the Japanese federal government and Robot Taxi will see 50 people take part in a trial scheme in the Kanagawa prefecture, just south of Tokyo. The trips will cover about 3 kilometres and involve some of the main roads in the city - which is perhaps why human drivers will still be on hand in case they need to take over in an emergency.

It's all part of Robot Taxi's aim of getting its driverless transportation service commercialised by the turn of the decade (2020 also happens to be the same target Google has set itself for getting its cars out of testing and on sale to anyone who wants one). "There are a lot of people who say it's impossible, but I think this will happen faster than people expect," said government minister Shinjiro Koizumi.

Japan has an ageing population and the elderly are in line to be the first to benefit from this self-driving car technology. Vehicles will be able to pick up and drop off citizens long after they've become too frail to actually drive themselves - and that can make a huge difference to people who would otherwise be stuck at home all day. 

There's another reason behind that 2020 deadline: the Tokyo Olympic games. Spectators and even athletes could potentially be ferried around in cars without drivers, summoned with a tap on a smartphone and using advanced sensor equipment (including GPS) to keep tabs on their current location.

Japanese firms are rarely shy in bringing robotic technology to consumers as quickly as possible: this is the country with a hotel staffed exclusively by robots, after all. In a promotional video uploaded by Robot Taxi, an elderly couple gets picked up from their front doorstep and driven through the countryside.

Numerous firms are now working on this kind of autonomous technology, from the major car-makers to small hardware and software start-ups. Even Apple is rumoured to have a self-driving car in the works - though nothing is official yet.