Japan’s self-driving cars: safety over excitement

The car is cruising noiselessly along a busy highway on the crispest of autumn mornings in Tokyo.

The vehicle, a Lexus hybrid, is relatively unremarkable but inside hangs an air of expectation. The moment has arrived: time to take the hands off the wheel.

The driver’s palms cautiously hover several inches below the dashboard but as the car whizzes towards a bend the wheel automatically begins to twitch to the left. As it gains on the same model ahead a screen on the dashboard snaps into life displaying images of each vehicle, each one highlighted in a golden circle like a protective halo.

The sight of the cars taking corners by themselves is thrilling but the engineer explaining the technology from the back seat is at pains to set out the boundaries.

Forget waving futuristic cars out of your driveway to pick up the kids from school or catching forty winks on a road trip. Unusually for an industry that relies on glamour, speed and romantic images of the open road to sell its products, manufacturers have made a sober appraisal of what could be the next big thing in driving.

We must take care that this system is not misused,” says Mitsuhisa Shida.

Toyota shies away from the expression automated driving, preferring instead to talk of “co-piloting” or the rather less snappy “automated highway driving assist”.

Dashboard cameras and advanced versions of cruise control aim to help drivers use fuel efficiently, ease traffic bottlenecks and – in the most extreme cases – prevent collisions.

Japanese carmakers are at the forefront of this field, having tinkered with the technology since the 1990s but only recently becoming serious about commercialisation. Nissan made a pledge this year, promising vehicles with assisted-driving technology would be commercially available by 2020. Toyota also hopes to make its vehicles commercially available within the next few years.

It could change the face of driving and promote a new degree of co-operation among carmakers.

Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mazda and Subaru have worked together to ensure their individual wireless communication, which assess nearby vehicles to determine safe distances, are compatible. The technology is ready but nevertheless engineers and designers face a frustrating wait to see hands-off driving become part of everyday life given the legal and regulatory changes required to accommodate it.

We’re not so optimistic – we think its going to be difficult,” says Hiroyuki Kanemitsu, who manages the Toyota project, when contemplating the process. “We think all carmakers will have to work together in different countries.”

One of the cornerstones of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, an international agreement, is that a driver is always fully in control and responsible for the behaviour of a vehicle and that principle will remain, Mr Kanemitsu says.

“We don’t want to promote the hands-free aspect but the safety aspect,” he adds.

It is too soon to predict what other regulations will be imposed by transport authorities. Insurance companies too will be forced to rethink the terms of policies.

Even defining what is meant by automated driving given the differences between various models and public understanding of the concept is not easy, says Tatsuo Yoshida, an auto analyst at Barclays.

While carmakers say the vehicles will appeal to all customers, they make no secret of the fact that they are likely to benefit to older customers who are presumably willing – and able – to pay a premium for the technology.

While the number of overall road traffic fatalities in Japan has been in decline it has not fallen among those aged over 65. According to carmakers, this signals a need for vehicles which help drivers maintain a constant speed in the middle of lanes, handle corners and can brake in emergencies, according to carmakers.

Global competition too is hotting up as rivals in the US and Europe get in on the act. General Motors and Daimler are among those hoping to introduce the vehicles by the end of this decade, and Tesla Motors also has ambitions in this area.

The sight of prime minister Shinzo Abe smiling and waving from the passenger seat of a self-driving vehicle whizzing its way around the parliamentary complex in Tokyo last month was the perfect advertisement for Japan’s latest breed of car. But the road ahead remains long and winding.

Source: FT


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