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Self-driving push gathers momentum

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A verification test is conducted on a public road in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 1 by ZMP, a start-up company involved in the development of self-driving technologies. When making a right turn, the car noticed a pedestrian in its path and stopped.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThe government and private corporations are accelerating efforts to develop and widen the use of automated driving technologies. Aiming to initiate transport services using fully automated cars — vehicles that can operate without human involvement — in 2020, legislation and verification tests related to such technologies will pick up speed starting in fiscal 2017.

‘Unmanned’ not presumed

On Feb. 21, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed expectations regarding previous comments by Nissan Motor Co. President Carlos Ghosn about carrying out tests to verify self-driving technology. “We would like you to create an environment that enjoys the highest level of freedom in the world so the innovation of [related] technologies can move forward at full blast,” Abe said at a meeting of the government’s advisory council on national strategic special zones.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

The prime minister also said at a meeting of the government’s council on future investment on Feb. 16 that he intends to expedite the legislation of necessary laws to help Japanese companies develop new technologies.

Self-driving is classified into four levels, but existing laws only cover up to Level 2, in which a semi-autonomous system assists a human driver.

For instance, in an accident resulting in injury or death, the owner of the car or the driver would be liable, in principle, under the current Automobile Liability Security Law.

Accidents caused by malfunctions or hacking of the self-driving system are anticipated at Level 3 — in which the self-driving system mainly operates the car and the driver takes necessary action only in an emergency — and Level 4. To deal with such accidents, the automobile insurance mechanism requires revision.

Reviewing the Road Traffic Law, which presumes a driver is securely handling controls such as the steering wheel and brakes, will be an issue. The current law was not written on the premise that there could be unmanned vehicles on public roads.

Concerning self-driving safety standards, Japan is working with European countries and others to draw up common rules regarding lane assist on expressways and other Level 2 functions. The IT Strategic Headquarters of the government is currently listing the challenges ahead to outline necessary legislation by the end of fiscal 2017.

Taking it to public roads

The government is planning to conduct tests to run remotely controlled unmanned buses on public roads in 10 locations nationwide in fiscal 2017, in an effort to provide support to the elderly and children residing in depopulated areas with limited access to transportation.

Furthermore, tests are scheduled to be conducted in fiscal 2018 in which several unmanned trucks are led by a truck with a human driver along an expressway, with the aim of alleviating the shortage of drivers in the logistics industry.

Private sector moving ahead

Automobile manufacturers are quickly moving toward developing fully automated cars, prompting the government to expedite its own efforts.

Nissan will tie up with IT company DeNA Co. to conduct joint research, and Honda Motor Co. will partner with U.S. IT firm Google for the same purpose. In order to improve self-driving, the technology of “connected cars” — vehicles equipped with constant internet access — will be indispensable. Toyota Motor Corp. will tighten cooperation with telecommunications major KDDI Corp. to push forward with its plan to globally standardize in-car communication systems.

Start-up robotics developer ZMP Inc. is developing software to analyze information about the surroundings of a car gathered by in-vehicle cameras and sensors. The software will then communicate its analysis to the self-driving system.

However, some Japanese companies are voicing concern. “The technological barrier in developing fully automated cars is difficult to overcome, and whether it will proceed as the government plans is unknown,” said a source from a major car maker.

U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co. has announced plans to mass-produce fully automated cars, adding momentum to international competition.

The government will need to work further on relaxing regulations to create an environment in which Japanese companies feel at ease about developing self-driving technologies.Speech

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