Self-driving cars

Japan edges closer towards brave new world of self-driving cars but hard questions remain

  • New legislation tests the water with rules that permit a driver to watch a television programme on a built-in car data screen while stuck in traffic
  • Within the next two years, Toyota will introduce Highway Teammate, which will enable autonomous driving on motorways and enable future developments
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 4:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 9:54pm

If the blue-sky thinkers’ ambitions can be achieved, it may be only a matter of time before our cars are given instructions and humans are happily relegated to the back-seat role. We will be watching a film or reading a book while our vehicles automatically whisk us to our destination by the quickest route, keep us up-to-date on road and weather conditions, suggest opportunities to stop for a spot of shopping or sightseeing and generally take the stress out of travelling by road.

In cities like Tokyo, that would be a godsend to many who are tired of its congested roads.

Japan’s car manufacturers have vowed to push ahead with the development of autonomously operated vehicles after the release in December of a draft bill to govern the emerging sector, although there are some cautioning that fully autonomous driving is still further away than many imagine. The other question is whether the majority of drivers even want the technology.

The National Police Agency released on Thursday the outline of the legislation, which could be implemented as early as next year.

The legislation identified a number of levels for autonomous vehicles, initially testing the water with rules that permit a driver to watch a television programme on a built-in car data screen while stuck in traffic or using a mobile phone while the vehicle operates on its own.

Toyota is watching the situation … and we will continue our efforts to develop automated driving technology
Toyota spokesman

The outline rules still prohibit a driver from sleeping, consuming alcohol or sitting in the back seat of the vehicle on the grounds the person in charge of the vehicle needs to be able to resume full control at short notice.

Vehicle manufacturers will need to demonstrate their cars are able to meet a series of strict criteria – known as operational design domain – that show they can operate safely in varying conditions and on different types of roads, including motorways.

The new rules, which are being opened up to public comment before a bill is submitted to the Diet in early next year, will also oblige each vehicle to have a “black box” that stores all driving data for the car.

Toyota is at the forefront of autonomous driving technology in Japan but, mindful that the government is encouraging a public debate, was cautious in a statement to the South China Morning Post.

“Following the announcement of a draft bill on autonomous driving from the National Police Agency in Japan, Toyota is watching the situation, including the public’s reaction and comments, and we will continue our efforts to develop automated driving technology,” a spokesperson said.

Toyota has tied up with SoftBank in the development of next-generation driverless cars, with the Nagoya-based carmaker looking to tap into the IT firm’s know-how, with the first project on their shared drawing board an autonomous food home delivery service.

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Within the next two years, the company plans to introduce Highway Teammate, which will enable autonomous driving on motorways and will serve as the basis for future developments in automated driving. The system will be able to evaluate traffic conditions, make decisions and take action while a car is in motion on a highway. On Monday, the company is scheduled to roll out the TRI-P4 automated driving test vehicle at the CES technology show in Las Vegas.

Yet full automobile autonomy remains something of a distant dream, said John Harris, who has worked directly for the CEOs of both Mazda and Nissan in Japan and is now an auto sector journalist.

“There are two huge issues facing the industry in Japan and all the car companies are terrified because they’re a threat to their market share,” he said. “One is electrification and the other is autonomous driving.

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“And while electric cars are already in widespread use and we will soon reach a tipping point at which the batteries are sufficiently cheap that conventional engines are obsolete, autonomous driving is still a long way off.”

The challenges in Japan are numerous, Harris pointed out, including the narrow streets and congestion of cities, although there are certain sectors that could embrace the technology relatively swiftly.

“A couple of areas where we could see automated driving add value here in Japan would be in long convoys of lorries that could travel between Tokyo and Osaka at night on a motorway, or on carefully groomed and closely monitored routes for city buses,” he said.

Japanese firms are not the lowest on cost competition … they are relying on what has been their strongest suit: technology
John Harris, journalist

Autonomous driving would certainly be an asset in certain situations – “after a night out when you’ve had too much to drink or to pick the kids up after school,” Harris suggested – but the reality is it remains “a difficult mission”.

As well as the technological difficulties associated with navigating Japan’s hectic cities, manufacturers are extremely concerned about cars’ operating systems being hacked and, in a worst-case scenario, being taken over by a fanatic with a desire to cause mayhem.

Nonetheless, Japanese firms are likely to remain at the cutting edge of developments in next-generation driving technology, Harris said.

“Japanese firms are not the lowest on cost competition and they don’t have luxury on their side, so they are relying on what has been their strongest suit: technology,” he said. “Fundamentally, they cannot afford to fall behind their global competitors on technology and automated driving is the next great step forward. Everyone is scared to be tail-end charlie on this.

It is unclear, though, whether every car in the future will be capable of automated driving, or whether drivers will want to leave their journey in the hands of artificial intelligence.

“Electrification is a no-brainer and is happening,” Harris said. “But the majority of the public don’t really care about autonomous driving technology and there are an awful lot of people who really enjoy driving. They don’t want it and they don’t need it.”