Self-driving robotaxis are being tested in Japan.
Self-driving robotaxis are being tested in Japan.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pexels)

SMART CARS Autonomous vehicles in Japan: A country report

| Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

As a nation, Japan differs from other parts of the world in its approach to and regulation of autonomous vehicles. On the whole, the country appears to be more cautious and conservative both in terms of putting such vehicles on its roads and in consumer desire for such functionality, despite a growing need for smart and shared mobility due to an aging population.

From the outside, Japan would appear to be the perfect environment for the production of autonomous vehicles (AVs); it’s home to hundreds of thousands of high-tech enterprises, dozens of which are at or close to the vanguard of the AV industry, and Japan’s automakers are ahead of the curve in terms of integrating AV features and technology into their vehicles and have prioritized advanced autonomous functionality (at Society of Automotive Engineers [SAE] Levels 3, 4, or 5) for their vehicles for the near future.

Japan vs. China

Yet, in terms of countries that have implemented such platforms and put actual AVs on public roads, Japan has not grabbed headlines as much as its larger rival to the West, China.

This is despite an acknowledged aging of Japan’s population as the national birthrate has been below an adequate replacement threshold since 1974. By 2050, it's estimated that at least one-third of Japan’s population will be 65 years of age or older. In future years—especially in rural regions—the need for shared mobility and vehicles that can shuttle people who are too old or infirm to drive themselves will be pronounced.

While in past decades, Japan has been looked at as an eager promoter and embracer of high technology, more recently, China has stolen the spotlight from its smaller competitor. China’s one-party government has made a relentless push to advance and prioritize the adoption of AVs at all costs—even, as it sometimes seems, if the technology has not quite yet been perfected.

Repeated surveys of global consumers show that Chinese car buyers are some of the most eager in the world to adopt and pay for AV features and seem to be bothered the least by any potential for system failures, accidents, and/or the possible premature inclusion of such systems. But in Japan, only about 35 % of consumers desire fully self-driving AVs, with at least 79 % of those polled believing that such AVs will not be safe.

Indeed, in recent years, it’s been Chinese—not Japanese—automaker OEMs that have been at the forefront of manufacturing SAE Level 3- and 4-capable production cars, buses, and trucks—vehicles that have actually made it out of company testing facilities and into consumers’ hands.

A cautious approach

To say that Japan is eschewing AV technology would be incorrect, however, it may be more accurate to posit that Japan as a nation does not desire to be on the “bleeding edge” as far as selling automotive technology and putting it into use before it’s market-ready.

Japan as a nation tends to be quite averse to risk and unsound practices when it comes to both driving and infrastructure. If one looks at metrics such as road accident fatalities, in Japan, roughly eight persons lose their lives daily due to auto accidents. On an annual per capita basis, Japan experiences roughly 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 people from auto accidents. But these numbers compare quite favorably to, say, China, where some 700 people are killed daily (roughly 18.3 per 100,000 people annually) from auto accidents. It’s safe to say that the “Vision Zero” goal of zero fatalities from auto accidents in the future has taken far firmer root in Japan than it has in China.

Perhaps pushing this (or as a result of this), Japan is ahead of other nations when it comes to mapping its roads for AVs. A number of companies, such as Asian, Dynamic Map Platform, and NTT Data, have been built partially or solely around the mapping of Japanese (and other) streets and highways.

Also, Japan as a nation seems to be quite eager to deploy intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technology, with both Panasonic and Toshiba being major players in this arena. In the long-term, the Japanese government has defined a “Society 5.0” Internet of Things (IoT)/AI/Big Data initiative, with the goal being to create a “super-smart society” that would serve as an example for the rest of the world.

Bureaucracy and red tape as obstacles

While Japanese roads are typically extraordinarily well built and planned with safety in mind, prefectural and municipal governments in the island nation have not been as forthcoming with permits to test AVs on public thoroughfares as their counterparts in China or some U.S. states.

In 2017, Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) loosened regulations for vehicles carrying both passengers and goods in depopulated regions of the country. But it took until March 2019 for the Japanese government to finally amend its road transport laws to create standards for vehicular cameras, sensors, and regulating equipment that are all components of AV platforms.

New rules were established to cover testing and maintenance of AVs. As it stands, over-the-air (OTA) updating of AV platform operating systems and software still needs explicit government approval on a version-by-version basis. Private sector auto insurance is required to pay for accidents caused by AVs, at least for those driving at SAE Level 3. The government has said that while operating at SAE Level 3, drivers will be allowed to peruse their mobile phones, but they could be still held responsible for accidents if they ignore warnings from other vehicles, or if they fail to maintain their cars to the government’s persnickety standards.

A testing lag

Because of these conditions, Japanese carmakers and AV startups have not been able to test vehicles on public roads to the extent of their competitors in China and the United States; the emphasis on real-world data accumulation via mileage driven by prototype cars means that Japanese automakers are at a decided disadvantage when it comes to AV testing. Perhaps taking note of this, consulting group KPMG’s 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index ranked Japan outside the top 10 countries deemed most fit to handle AVs on their roads, after Singapore, the United States, the UK, and even European nations such as the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Germany.

An academic perspective

All of this is not to deny that Japan’s automakers are among the most successful in the world, producing approximately 9.7 million vehicles per year, of which some 4.8 million are exports. Most Japanese automakers have begun to test and integrate AV features to some degree, even as Japanese OEMs and AV startups have made significant advances in computer vision, environmental perception, and HD mapping (in 2008, for instance, Subaru’s EyeSight advanced driver assistance system [ADAS] became the first such system in the world to integrate stereo cameras). Most Japanese automakers include SAE Level 2 or even 2+ ADAS features in many of their models.

Yet, for as much progress that’s been made, Japanese R&D of the technology still has something of an academic bent to it, as consortiums like the country’s Autoware Foundation establish standards and inaugurate open-source projects.

A few companies like Toyota have set up their own AV research institutes and don’t necessarily seem to be in a hurry to emulate Chinese, European, or American automaker OEMs like SAIC, Audi, or Tesla, which have aggressively rolled out new vehicles and model variants incorporating some degree of higher AV technology.

In fact, because of this and likely because of Japan’s unorthodox right-hand-drive standard, it’s Chinese and American companies that European OEMs have turned to in most cases for AV platforms (e.g., Daimler working with Baidu and NVIDIA, Fiat Chrysler working with AutoX and Waymo, Volkswagen working with Argo AI), rather than Japanese firms.

Robotaxis and delivery AVs in Japan

There was a concerted effort by a number of companies such as Toyota and ZMP to put AVs into public use prior to (or specifically for) the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, which were scheduled for 2020. However, with the coronavirus pandemic, these games have been rescheduled for 2021 for now, and most of these efforts have been pushed back.

At the moment, SAE Level 3-and-above robotaxi services are being trialed (with a backup safety driver present in vehicles) in Tokyo and Yokohama by companies including Nissan, DeNA, and Germany’s Continental. Israel’s MobilEye, a subsidiary of the U.S.’s Intel, announced it will be partnering with Osaka-based Asian transport operator Willer on a Japan-wide robotaxi service to test in 2021 and fully launch by 2023.

Simultaneously, low-speed (less than 6 kph) driverless “DeliRo” delivery robot AVs that are smaller than cars from Japanese startup ZMP have been tested in Tokyo for clients Japan Post and door-to-door delivery service Yamato. Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten is also trialing similar vehicles from Chinese retailer, but Japanese law must be amended before significant deployment of these can take place.

The Woven City

Perhaps the most interesting, influential, and impressive Japanese effort involving AVs is Toyota’s Woven City initiative, which is shaping up to have its first phase begun in 2021.

The Woven City (named for Toyota’s original product of textile looms when the company was founded) is a 175-acre planned community to be built at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji for an initial population of 2,000 residents. The city will feature streets, buildings, residential developments, and an underground infrastructure network that will all be created from scratch. It will make use of the very latest technologies developed by Toyota’s Research Institute in the areas of AI, Big Data, shared mobility, robotics, smart homes, and smart cities.