Japan steps up self-driving to revive rural areas, help elderly

Almost 300,000 people aged 75 or over returning their licenses in 2020, according to the National Police Agency. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan is bolstering its autonomous driving ambitions with a new project to be formally introduced Wednesday (Sept 8) 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 4 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 Mr 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 6 billion yen (S$73 million) 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 licenses in 2020, according to the National Police Agency. The figure was even higher the previous year.

While companies such as Toyota Motor Corp and NEC Corp are testing highly autonomous vehicles, this will be one of the first Level 4 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 4 from 3, Mr 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's no perfect accident-proof technology and it takes major infrastructure investment for autonomous cars to become a reality, even in closed operating environments, said Dr 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 an accident, he said.

German lawmakers agreed in May to allow some Level 4 vehicles on public roads as soon as 2022.

Japan revised laws in 2019 to allow Level 3 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 recent 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 in a video on Aug 27 following the incident at the Paralympic Athletes' Village. There still aren't any rules for deciding whether autonomous cars or safety operators take responsibility, he said.

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