Driverless technology stole the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show last November as Japan’s automakers raced toward putting fully-automated vehicles on the road by 2020, in time for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
The Big Three of Japan’s automotive industry – Toyota Motor Corporation, Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co.—are increasing research and development efforts to put self-driving cars into practical use.
For more than five years now, the giant Web search engine company Google has been working on and road-testing modified, computer-driven Toyota Prius hybrid cars and an Audi TT in California.
Global carmakers believe that most road mishaps are caused by human error and that autonomous driving technology has the potential to reduce the number of accidents and traffic jams.
Self-driving vehicles could also serve as a means of transportation for the elderly and disabled, while logistics companies with labor shortages would need such vehicles too.
Because of the rapidly aging population of Japan and other developed markets, autonomous vehicles are projected to have a bright future in sales.
At present, there are three levels of driving automation. On the first level, vehicles are capable of driver assistance, whereby the system controls either steering, acceleration or braking.
On the second level, the system controls at least two of the functions of steering, acceleration and braking, but a human driver can operate these functions if necessary.
On the third level, the system controls all three: steering, acceleration and braking, but a human driver can still intervene. Like the second level, the third level consists of partial automation.
The fourth level is full automation, whereby human drivers do not engage in driving at all.
Fully automated vehicles turn the wheel, apply the brakes and press the accelerator automatically by using information about environmental conditions from sensors, cameras and satellites.
Self-driving cars can avoid pedestrians and obstacles and choose the best lanes during periods of traffic congestion.
Anticipating the onslaught of driverless cars, Japan’s National Police Agency and the General Insurance Association of Japan are studying issues concerning fully-automated driving, such as who will be held liable if a self-driving car causes an accident – the automaker, the developer of the system or the owner of the vehicle? And to what degree of responsibility?
Meanwhile, Toyota recently announced it is investing $1 billion in the next five years to build a research center beside Stanford University in Silicon Valley that will bridge basic science and commercial engineering to study putting artificial intelligence on the road. Another R&D lab will be built near MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When the Toyota Research Institute begins operating, it will prioritize making driving safer for humans rather than completely replacing them.
The chief executive officer of the Toyota Research Institute said that rather than completely removing drivers from cars, a collection of sensors and software will serve as a “guardian angel” protecting human drivers, in the process creating “cars that are both safer and incredibly fun to drive.”
The initiative, he said, was intended to turn one of the world’s most successful carmakers into one of the world’s top software developers. With reports from The Japan Times and International New York Times.