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Business trends

Major Japanese companies set for R&D spending binge

Total outlays for the current fiscal year headed for a record 12 trillion yen

Toyota President Akio Toyoda promotes Toyota's latest developments in autonomous driving at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's major corporations are headed for a spending binge on research and development in the current fiscal year through March, with 43.9% planning record outlays, according to a survey by Nikkei Inc.

The survey of R&D activities for fiscal 2018, which started in April, showed that total R&D spending by major Japanese companies will rise 4.5% from the previous fiscal year, marking the ninth consecutive year of increase.

Japanese manufacturers, especially those in the auto sector, are aggressively investing in state-of-the-art technologies, such as artificial intelligence and autonomous driving, on the back of strong business performance. Such technologies are seen key to future competitiveness.

The survey covered 231 major companies whose R&D spending plans for the current fiscal year could be compared with those for the previous year.

The total amount of spending by the companies surveyed is expected to reach 12.478 trillion yen ($112 billion) in the current fiscal year.

By industry, auto sector investment will rise 6.4% this year to more than 4 trillion yen. Investment by the basic materials sector will climb 6.5%, while that by the machinery sector will surge 9.9%.

More than half of companies in the auto, basic materials and machinery sectors said they plan to invest record amounts in the current fiscal year.

Investment by the information technology sector will increase just 1.9% to around 4 trillion yen in the current fiscal year.

Automakers are doubling down in such areas as artificial intelligence, autonomous driving and connected cars in a race with Google and other European and the U.S. technology companies.

The automakers are not adhering to a strict policy of in-house development, and are instead looking to take advantage of an open climate of innovation that may see them getting involved in external collaborations.

Toyota Motor, the biggest R&D spender, will invest a record 1.08 trillion yen to expedite the development of autonomous driving technology, connected cars and electric vehicles. Toyota is accelerating efforts to undertake joint development projects and form alliances

"It is important to make partners," said President Akio Toyoda.

Honda Motor, which has seen a biggest increase in the R&D investment, is joining the Apollo plan to advance autonomous driving technology, pushed by the Chinese internet search company Baidu. Honda is the first Japanese automaker to join the plan.

Nissan Motor is proceeding with the development of new services, including a trial self-driving transport service with DeNA, a Japanese provider of mobile and online services.

Materials company Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings plans to spend 160 billion yen, up 15.2% from a year ago, on the development of high-performance materials.

Air-conditioner maker Daikin Industries will step up the development of energy-saving technologies and next-generation refrigeration with a budget of 68 billion yen, up 9.5% from a year ago.

Technology companies are focusing largely on auto-related applications. Sony will focus on onboard image sensors that will be the eyes of cars, aiming to become the market leader in the field, as well on sensors for smartphones.

Panasonic, on the other hand, is prioritizing automotive batteries and developments in artificial intelligence. The company is developing the basic technology for solid-state batteries, participating in a joint development project with partners such as Toyota.

In the promising field of the internet of things, Mitsubishi Electric aims to foster collaboration between its divisions in areas such as factory automation, automotive devices and artificial satellites. It will bring to bear its research facilities for the development of internet-of-things technologies for smart factories and automated driving.

Rival Hitachi aims to step up development of artificial intelligence and software technologies to support its Lumada internet-of-things platform, which it aims to grow into a core earner. The company is working with researchers at the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University and Stanford University. The company's budget for open innovation projects has increased by over 60% from fiscal 2015.

The R&D budgets of Japanese companies are eclipsed, however, by those of the U.S. tech giants. Google parent Alphabet plans to spend some 1.8 trillion yen, while Apple plans to spend 1.2 trillion yen.

By these standards, the international competitiveness of Japanese companies in technologies and software to support automated-driving, artificial intelligence and the internet of things is not especially high. There is pressure on them to spend more just to maintain their competitive positions.

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