Even though human drivers cause millions of deadly crashes every year, they’re wary of self-driving cars that are less than perfect. Picture: SUPPLIED
Even though human drivers cause millions of deadly crashes every year, they’re wary of self-driving cars that are less than perfect. Picture: SUPPLIED

Japan is bolstering its autonomous driving ambitions with a new project to be formally introduced on Wednesday to expand the use of self-driving vehicles in more than 40 locations around the country by 2025. 

The “Road to the L4” project aims to popularise advanced mobility services including level four autonomous driving, wherein vehicles can operate without a human at the wheel. It will include demonstrations of the technology to promote acceptance and understanding, according to the ministry of economy, trade and industry. One of the goals is to help revitalise communities. 

“People including the elderly don’t have ways to get around in rural areas,” said Tatsuki Izawa, an assistant manager in the ministry’s autonomous driving division. “If there are city-circular autonomous buses, they will be able to go shopping and have outings.”

The government has earmarked about ¥6bn ($55m) for developing autonomous-driving services this fiscal year, including for the L4 project, which comes as many elderly Japanese give up driving. Almost 300,000 people aged 75 or over returning their licences in 2020, according to the national police office. The figure was even higher the previous year.

While companies such as Toyota and NEC are testing fully autonomous vehicles, this will be one of the first level four government projects. One of its goals will be ensuring autonomous vehicles operate safely and effectively where there are other vehicles and humans. 

“It’s a big challenge” to transition to level four from three, Izawa said. “We will have to show people, through experiments, that safety can be assured as we’re heading into a technologically tough area.” 

There is no perfect accident-proof technology and it takes huge infrastructure investment for autonomous cars to become a reality, even in closed operating environments, said Takashi Oguchi, a professor of traffic engineering at Tokyo University who is part of the project. “No-one has figured out an answer” on who takes responsibility and compensates in case of a crash, he said.

German legislators agreed in May to allow some level four vehicles on public roads as soon as 2022. Japan revised laws in 2019 to allow level three cars, which are capable of automated driving under certain conditions, to run on its roads. 

Safety and consumer acceptance are the main barriers for autonomous vehicles, according to a study by Nottingham Trent University and Qatar University researchers. A collision between a Toyota self-driving vehicle and a visually impaired Japanese athlete during the Tokyo Paralympics left him unable to compete in his event, reinforcing concerns over safety. 

“It shows that autonomous vehicles are not yet realistic for normal roads,” Toyota president Akio Toyoda said on August 27 after the incident at the Paralympic Athletes’ Village. There still are not any rules for deciding whether autonomous cars or safety operators take responsibility, he said.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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