Musical chairs: restaurants to test self-driving seats

Some people are good at queuing; others are not so patient. I’m in the second category.

In Tokyo, I occasionally encounter lines so long that I wonder whether people are joining the queue for the sake of it. I don’t care how much of a buzz surrounds this ice-tea outlet or that accessories store — it surely can’t be worth the wait of more than an hour.

A long queue outside the Lipton Fruits in Tea shopfront in Omotesando, Tokyo (31 July).

A long queue outside the Lipton Fruits in Tea shopfront in Omotesando, Tokyo (31 July).

Even outside the capital there can be extraordinary delays at certain restaurants. On a busy spring day in Kamakura, south of Tokyo, I couldn’t bear the prospect of waiting 90 minutes for a table — no matter how delicious the curry was meant to be.

But if the staff had been able to placate tetchy customers with the novelty of self-driving chairs, I might have had second thoughts.

The car manufacturer Nissan is looking for restaurant owners across Japan to trial the new ProPilot Chair, a roving seat that saves people the trouble of standing up and sitting down each time they advance in a queue. When the customer at the front is ushered into the venue, the now-empty chair pops out of the line and obediently rolls back to the end. The remaining chairs tentatively edge forward to fill the gap, bringing their occupants with them. They come with footrests to prevent any unwanted friction — although they are missing headrests that would enhance power-napping ability.

Patience pending … Testing out the chairs at Nissan Global Headquarters Gallery, Yokohama, where they were on display from 29 September to 2 October.

Patience pending … Testing out the chairs at Nissan Global Headquarters Gallery, Yokohama, where they were on display from 29 September to 2 October.

It’s not clear how many venues will be part of the forthcoming trial, but a multi-prefecture sushi chain is said to be among companies that have already put up their hands. Others have until December to signal their interest.

“We’ve seen an encouraging response from restaurants throughout Japan,” Nissan spokesman Nick Maxfield tells me.
“The scope of the project hasn’t been fixed yet. The chairs will be installed at restaurants next year, which gives us a fair amount of time and flexibility.”

Don’t expect Nissan to steer too far from its core business of making cars: the company is not planning to roll out the chairs en masse. The exercise is more about promoting the similar “autonomous driving technology” that is installed in the newest Serena minivan, which hit the Japanese market in August. (In highway situations, the Serena can maintain a constant distance behind the next car and keep the vehicle centred in its lane.)

Nissan’s slick promo video suggests the technology might also be useful in art galleries and on walking tours — but some people are not so easily impressed: