Japan’s betting on autonomous cars – for a unique reason
Autonomous cars, commonly known as self-driving cars, aren’t new in Japan — nor the automotive industry.
But whilst the rest of the developed world is pushing for autonomous vehicles largely for reasons of safety and convenience for people in general, Japan’s a little different.
It’s to compensate for its aging population.
The Japanese ageing population is in need of transportation — but the country is plagued by persistent labor shortages.
“In the cargo and transport sectors, drivers have become older and the shortage of human resources has become serious,” a recent METI report said.
It also warned of “terrible traffic accidents caused by elderly drivers making operational errors”.
Accelerating tech for autonomous cars
Japan is focusing on accelerating the development of the technology behind autonomous vehicles — mainly machine learning, and IoT sensors supported by cutting edge hardware.
They have also changed laws to pave the way for increasingly advanced autonomous vehicles on the road.
Additionally, the ministry of economy, trade, and industry (METI) has plans for 40 autonomous taxi test sites nationwide by 2025.
Last year, it became the first country in the world to allow a vehicle capable of taking full control in certain situations to operate on public roads.
Local automakers cautiously optimistic
Top-selling Toyota plans to run its e-Palette self-driving buses along dedicated roads in the smart city it is building at the foot of Mount Fuji.
The Honda car has “Level 3” autonomy, meaning it can take certain decisions alone, though a driver has to be ready to take the wheel in emergencies.
For rural Japan, autonomous vehicles “will become a necessity”, said Christopher Richter, head of Japan research at brokerage CLSA.
“I can see why it’s a priority for the government, for carmakers… (but) big-scale autonomous driving is probably not coming in our decade.”
Japan’s automakers admit the time horizon is a complex proposition at this stage.
Ubiquity of autonomous cars still a distance away
When Nissan launched tests of its “Easy Ride” self-driving taxis in 2018, it said it expected them to be commercially available from the early 2020s.
But Kazuhiro Doi, the company’s global vice president in charge of research, is more circumspect now.
“Social acceptance (of autonomous cars) is not high enough,” he told AFP.
“Very few people have experience with autonomous driving. Without having experience, I think it’s very hard to accept it because it’s too new.”
This month, the Easy Ride taxis are in their third round of tests on public roads in Yokohama outside Tokyo, albeit in a limited area designated for the purpose.
“When we provide a test ride for customers, everybody is surprised… It’s better than what they expected,” Doi said.
“And that kind of experience needs to be accumulated.”
Doi admits it is hard to say when autonomous taxis could be commercially available in Japan, noting that the Easy Ride cars currently avoid “complicated” areas with narrow or winding streets.
“Unfortunately, complicated areas have customers,” he said.
Autonomous cars are the future, but more work is still needed
Seemingly paradoxically, superior safety promised by automated vehicles is facing issues — as a result of humans at the wheel.
Last month, an accident involving a self-driving bus at the Tokyo Paralympics had injured a visually impaired athlete. The bus had detected the man and stopped, but an operator on board overrode the system.
Richter opined that the incident in Tokyo demonstrates how far the sector has to go. “People said autonomous is ready for these kinds of controlled communities,” but even there “it failed”, he told AFP.
In June this year, Tesla recalled over 285,000 vehicles of its Model 3 and Model Y sedans in China due to a safety risk with their cruise control feature.
Last year, a tragic incident involving an Uber self-driving car resulted in the death of a pedestrian — because apparently the driver was “visually distracted by her mobile phone” during the drive.
Clearly, the technology is far from perfect — not so much because of its technological precision per se, but with regards to how humans operate and interact with it.
Nevertheless, this move by the Japanese government appears to be heading in the right direction in order to ensure complete safety for passengers and other road users.
Aside from perfecting the technology, there’s lots of room still for automakers and engineers to also look into the human aspect of self-driving cars — and try to mitigate lapses in human judgments that would otherwise render the technology inefficient.
With additional reporting by Etienne BALMER for AFP
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