Japan’s Plan to Speed Self-Driving Cars

Driverless cars for the Tokyo Olympics are part of a plan to boost the economy

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Japan’s Plan to Speed Self-Driving Cars
Photo: AP Images

Earlier this month Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got to participate in Japan’s first autonomous driving test on a public road. A Nissan Leaf, a Toyota Lexus, and a prototype Honda toured the vicinity of the National Diet (parliament). It was an important step in a plan that’s meant to boost the stature of Japanese technology and the country’s lackluster economy at the same time.

The scheme was hatched in June 2013 when Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism got together with domestic automakers to discuss advanced technologies. The outcome was a decision to spur development of automated driving systems. Hiroyuki Watanabe, a senior technical executive at Toyota, was appointed to direct the program.

The ministry’s effort is one of ten government programs—with a budget over US $400 million in 2014—meant to revitalize the stalled Japanese economy, which has lain stagnant for the past two decades.

The goal of the transport ministry is straightforward: Assist the auto industry’s introduction of autonomous acceleration, steering, and braking time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020—and so showcase Japan’s advanced technology in front of the world’s media.

After riding in all three vehicles, Abe told the press, “In particular, in tough driving conditions such as tight curves and lane changing using autonomous driving, I think our Japanese technologies are among the world’s best.”2

“The role of national and local governments is very important,” said Takao Asami, Nissan senior vice president, following the event. He added, “We have to find new regulations—how to take care of accidents, if they happen, [and decide] whose responsibility it will be.” (The ministry issued its first license for automated driving to Nissan in September 2013.)

Given Japan’s rapidly aging population, the government has another reason to welcome driverless vehicles. “In Japan, car accidents caused by the elderly and people suffering from dementia have been increasing,” Hideki Kimura, engineering professor at Tokai University near Tokyo told Spectrum. “So the need for automated operations is growing.”

He noted that though the Japanese government was promoting autonomous vehicles, “There are no effective laws for driverless cars on public roads in Japan. And there is still the question whether most people want driverless cars, because of the loss of driving pleasure and the increased expense.” Nevertheless, with the combined industry-government partnership, Kimura said, “I expect that driverless cars running on limited routes can be realized by 2020 in Japan.”

Public testing of such technology will begin next March in Fujisawa, a town just south of Tokyo on the coast of Kanagawa Prefecture. Some 50 Fujisawa residents will be ferried from home to a supermarket 3 kilometers away in robot taxis using main roads. The taxis will also carry an attendant in case of emergencies.

The experiment is being conducted by Tokyo-based Robot Taxi Inc., a joint-venture  between two Tokyo-based companies: ZMP Inc., a robot technology maker and  DeNA (pronounced DNA), a mobile technology services company, along with government assistance.

But other in the auto-industry are clearly interested: During a press conference at the Tokyo Motor Show earlier this month, Markus Heyn, a board member of a leading automotive supplier Robert Bosch GmbH in Gerlingen, Germany, said, “to further develop automated driving, we will make Japan a key location for Bosch.”

Bosch has been testing automated vehicles on public roads in Germany and the United States since the beginning of 2013. “Due to different road and traffic conditions in Japan, we need to adjust and customize our systems appropriately,” said Heyn.

There’s no doubt that a great deal of adjustment is likely needed in land-starved Japan. Outside of city and town centers, many urban streets and smaller roads have no sidewalks for pedestrians. Instead, pedestrians are supposed to walk inside a narrow white line shouldering roads that are also often narrow. As a consequence, vehicles frequently pass literally within a few centimeters of people and children. And it’s not uncommon for electricity poles, as well as other pedestrians, to block the progress of people walking, forcing some to suddenly step into the road in order to pass by.

A 2013 white paper on traffic safety in Japan noted that many fatalities are caused by poor driving performance, aimless driving, and distracted driving.  Backers of autonomous driving say the technology can reduce such accidents. According to Bosch, its “accident research predicts that increasing automation can lower accident rates significantly—by up to one-third in Germany alone.”

Given the road conditions in Japan, driverless vehicles are in for a testing time.

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