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tsPotentially one of the most disruptive technologies since the inception of the Internet, autonomous vehicles are set to change the way we travel. It has taken more than 10 years for the technology to reach anything close to a suitable level for mainstream adoption, but the work required to bring the concept to fruition is picking up speed.

Japan has long been seen as the leader in technological research and design. However, evolution of the autonomous vehicle has only just begun. With the government aiming to roll out a fleet of the vehicles by the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, many companies, such as Subaru and Robot Taxi, Inc., are taking up the challenge. Toyota Motor Corporation, Nissan Motor Company Ltd, and Honda Motor Co., Ltd., have been participating in a study panel set up by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) along with auto electronics makers Denso Corporation, Renesas Electronics Corporation, and Panasonic.

Meanwhile, General Motors Company and Mercedes-Benz have been developing autonomous cars in the United States since the 1980s. Today, Tesla Motors, Uber Technologies, Inc., and Google—along with others—are advancing the technology from Silicon Valley.

It is hoped that the integration of all-electric engines and other technologies will enable autonomous cars to reduce current levels of emissions and congestion. Of course, another benefit is comfort—the driver can take their hands off the wheel. This is something that would be welcomed by the haulage industry in particular.

It is hoped that the integration of all-electric engines and other technologies will enable autonomous cars to reduce current levels of emissions and congestion. Of course, another benefit is comfort—the driver can take their hands off the wheel. This is something that would be welcomed by the haulage industry in particular.

Among the main barriers to growth, regulations are at the top of the list—particularly with regard to safety. As Nissan Corporate Vice President and Global Head of Marketing and Brand Strategy Roel de Vries explained, “To keep on increasing the levels of autonomy, there will be a need to work with regulators and other partners as the vehicle is more and more becoming part of a wider ecosystem.”

For now, governments are taking a cautious approach to self-driving technology. Most recently,, a self-driving start-up in San Francisco, was forced to shut down. Plans for its add-on device Comma One, which would give any car abilities similar to Tesla’s Autopilot for just $999 plus a $24 monthly service fee, came to a halt when the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked for evidence that the device was safe to use.

The NHTSA and state regulators have been keeping a close eye on self-driving car systems to avoid a repeat of the Tesla Model S saga. Earlier this year, driver Joshua Brown was killed in Florida while his Tesla was on autopilot. This raised serious questions about the safety of such technology.

A key question being asked is: in the case of an unavoidable crash, how does an automated vehicle decide whom to save? It may be that the onus is on the manufacturer rather than the driver, which could perhaps drive down the price of insurance.

It is ethical issues such as this that will be under intense discussion by regulatory bodies as they attempt to determine where fault lies in incidents such as the Tesla S crash.

In September, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) released its Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. It includes a 15-point safety assessment and a model state policy where “a manufacturer should be able to focus on developing a single HAV [highly autonomous vehicle] fleet rather than 50 different versions to meet individual state requirements.”

There will be other issues to consider as these technologies develop. As Nissan’s de Vries explained, “When we get off the highway into the urban areas, there are obviously more elements to take care of.”

He mentioned Nissan’s ProPilot 1 system—autonomous driving technology that was demonstrated at the G7 Summit in Ise-shima in May—which allows for in-lane driving on highways. “After this, we will move to multi-lane highway driving and, eventually, in-city.” ProPilot has now been deployed in the Serena minivan, and will make its way into other Nissan vehicles, including the Qashqai in Europe, in 2017.

According to the Nikkei Asian Review, the Japanese government is looking to create laws that govern the use of driverless cars. Starting next April, guidelines will be formulated to allow manufacturers to test driverless vehicles on highways. The National Police Agency will also look at setting up a committee of experts to discuss laws that would enable driverless transportation in phases. Crucially, however, Japan’s Road Traffic Act and the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which Japan has ratified, would need to be revised to factor in entirely driverless cars.

Masahide Tomonari, project director at TU Automotive, believes this would be easier to achieve in Japan than elsewhere. “Japan is an island country whose traffic laws are mainly determined by a single government—although METI, police, and municipal governments are in charge of different sectors. So I think it would be easier than in the EU or the US to create original regulations to accommodate autonomous vehicles.”


Partnerships are certainly abundant in the US between Silicon Valley’s technology companies and various automotive makers, an example being the recent partnership between Blackberry and Ford to develop automotive software. Extending Japan’s collaboration with the United States, Toyota has opened the Toyota Research Institute with locations in Michigan, Silicon Valley, and Cambridge, Mass. Another significant moment for the industry was the 2015 formation in Japan of Robot Taxi, a joint venture between ZMP Inc. and DeNA Co., Ltd. From February 29 to March 11, the service was demonstrated in Fujisawa City in the Shonan area of Kanagawa Prefecture. Robot Taxi was trialed with resounding success, followed by demonstration tests for Level 4 autonomous driving in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 27.

ZMP used the RoboCar PHV/HV to roll out the initiative in February. The technology includes lasers and sensors to recognize objects, including pedestrians and vehicles. Also included is a mobile app that allows customers to reserve and pay for a taxi.

Automation is broken down into six levels, of which most vehicle manufacturers are still only within levels one to three. These range from the human driver doing everything (Level 0) to no intervention beyond starting the system and setting the destination (Level 5). We are now beginning to see systems between Levels 1 and 3, meaning the vehicle can conduct some parts of the driving and monitor the environment, but the human driver must be ready to take control. Level 4 takes these capabilities into unknown environments and only requests driver assistance in extreme cases, such as severe weather.

Advanced Driver Assistance System technology has taken a prominent place in the advancement of autonomous vehicles. The technology includes adaptive cruise control, distance control, lane keeping, blind spot assist, acceleration cutoff, and eyesight technology.

As de Vries explained, Nissan “already had camera and radar technologies, intelligent forward emergency braking, intelligent cruise control, electronic steering,” all of which culminate in the Serena.

Subaru’s EyeSight system uses “camera stereo technology to monitor the road ahead” and acts as a driver’s “second pair of eyes.” Captured by two cameras, EyeSight recognizes vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists, and applies the brakes to reduce the severity of any accident.

“Among various difficulties, I think the high-definition 3D map is the biggest one in Japan,” TU Automotive’s Tomonari explained. “It requires huge investment and major map makers and original equipment manufacturers [OEMs] have their own maps, and so there are some conflicts of interest from traditional business models here. It would be hard to create a standard map compatible with global ones, and that all OEMs and mapmakers agree to.”

This raises questions about who will pay for the investment, operate the data center, and run the updates. So far, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation and nine automakers have made headway with the creation of Dynamic Map Planning, a venture that will use specially equipped vehicles to create high-definition 3D maps for use by self-driving cars. “But,” Tomonari added, “I believe it requires government initiative at some point.”

In the United States, Google is using technology called LiDAR (light, detection, and ranging), which creates a detailed map of the car’s surroundings using a spinning range-finding unit mounted on top of the car.

Most recently, chip technology has become a major player in the autonomous car industry with San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., a world leader in wireless technology, acquiring Dutch chipmaker NXP Semiconductors, the world’s largest supplier of microchips to the automotive industry. Chip technology will enable assisted driving and manage power consumption. It is predicted that the use of these chips will increase with the advance of autonomous vehicles.

NXP is also making progress in Japan in the haulage industry, where the company is looking to test “platooning,” a technique in which trucks drive in a row, with the first being controlled by a driver and the rest operating in a semi-autonomous nature. The hope is that this will be more energy efficient.

So far, Uber, in partnership with San Francisco, Calif. start-up Otto, has successfully made a delivery of 50,000 beers with its first self-driving truck.

TU Automotive’s Tomonari listed other elements that are still in need of further development, such as the fusion of artificial intelligence and sensors to better understand road and traffic conditions, sensor functionality, and cost—autonomous vehicles should be affordable for the wider public. Data centers for updating real-time data are also key, but how they will be run and who will oversee the operations is a difficult question. Other important considerations are the human–machine interface—especially at Level 3 and higher—and cybersecurity, which is critical because autonomous vehicles rely on a higher level of connectivity than traditional cars. According to the US DOT’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, “Entities are encouraged to design their HAV systems following established best practices for cyber physical vehicle systems.” Cybersecurity concerns are still at the top of the priority list, and the search for safety-related laws and means of ensuring security are still underway.

Growth is certain and progress can only be hampered by inconsistent or overly restrictive regulation. In Japan, something else that will need attention is social acceptance. “Japanese—both the government and people—are quite cautious,” Tomonari explained. “So how OEMs and new players show the value of autonomous vehicles and make the consumers understand and pay for it is the key.”

There are more factors to consider, including the necessity to educate manufacturers and consumers on safety and best practices. Essentially, an autonomous vehicle would also need to go through an in-depth driving test and lessons to be able to deal with any situation.

Many car companies are already announcing that their self-driving cars will be available to the mass market within the next five years. The Internet of Things (IoT) will play a crucial role in the development of autonomous vehicles, allowing cars to communicate on the road and with their surroundings.

Atlanta, Ga. is one city that is beginning to embrace the rise of the IoT, and is looking to implement the use of driverless cars on the road as part of its Smart City program.

Still, there seems to be no shortage of skills and knowledge when it comes to the engineering and technology required for the creation and manufacturing of autonomous vehicles. With the help of BMW and Otto, online education startup Udacity has gone so far as to create a degree for self-driving car engineers.

Pontus Häggström, president and CEO of FCA Japan Ltd., thinks there will be “gradual adoption” and the “most potential perhaps lies in commercial applications [such as] trucks. Japan’s elevated and mostly separated highway system would lend itself very well to HAV use,” as this is where there are no pedestrians and generally a more predictable environment.

In looking ahead, Nissan’s de Vries concludes: “Vehicles will become more exciting with intelligent power due to a fast trend towards electric vehicles and technologies. The automotive world is becoming more and more integrated with the wider world of technology, leading to many opportunities for brands and customers.”

A key question being asked is: in the case of an unavoidable crash, how does an automated vehicle decide whom to save?