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Business trends

Self-driving era beckons as cars boost their street cred

With tech already proving its worth, automakers are set for large-scale rollout

One researcher at Gunma University likens the development of autonomous driving technology to laying invisible railway tracks on roads.

TOKYO -- Self-driving technology has been sparking both excitement and foreboding in the auto industry for a few years now. U.S. companies such as Google-affiliated Waymo and car-hailing app Uber Technologies have been getting most of the press recently, but the technology is about to take off in Japan as well.

The Center for Research on Adoption of NextGen Transportation Systems, a unit of Gunma University, has been testing an experimental self-driving car in Kiryu, a city in Gunma Prefecture known for its textile industry.

In a recent demonstration, the car, based on Toyota Motor's Prius hybrid vehicle, smoothly made right and left turns and stopped at a red light, all without the driver touching the wheel. The center aims to establish a level of technology for fully autonomous driving under certain conditions such as in restricted areas -- known as "Level 4 autonomy" -- according to criteria set by an American organization.

Bus operators in the countryside are looking to adopt this technology to make up for driver shortages. "It's like laying invisible railway tracks on the road," explained Takeki Ogitsu, deputy head of the research center. "We're working to shed unnecessary functions to improve its safety."

The research center plans to launch a fully autonomous local bus network in November 2018, in partnership with Nippon Chuo Bus, based in Maebashi, Gunma's prefectural capital.

The experimental bus will still have a driver but the autonomous driving system will be in primary control of driving, ferrying passengers on a 1km route between two stations in Maebashi. It will be one of the first autonomous-driving buses in the world to carry fare-paying passengers. "It will reduce the driver's workload and costs," a Nippon Chuo Bus representative said.

The idea is simple. The system first learns the techniques of seasoned drivers, which the autonomous vehicle mimics using various sensors and a motor that moves the steering wheel and brakes.

Advocates of self-driving cars envision a role for them in parts of the country where many elderly people live and public transportation is underdeveloped. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has been testing the technology at a dozen or so rest areas along major roads across the country.

SB Drive has also been testing an autonomous bus in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, with Suzuki Motor and Enshu Railway. The aim is to develop an autonomous driving system for bus operators.

Nissan Motor and DeNA plans to launch their pilot transport service with self-driving cars in the Minatomirai area in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. Passengers can hop on and off the vehicle anywhere they wish within the area.

But there are signs of change. In September, Toyota published a white paper on autonomous driving. It outlines the automaker's approach to the field. It states that the company plans to commercialize such technology and have it operating on public roads by the early 2020s. Specifically, the company aims to develop technology that will allow the vehicle -- with the driver still at the wheel -- to automatically change lanes and keep a certain distance from the car ahead of it. Toyota set up an artificial intelligence subsidiary in Silicon Valley in 2016 and has also teamed up with companies like Nvidia, an American chipmaker."We wish to make car operations another pillar of our business," a DeNA official said. The company also plans to test delivery service using self-driving cars in the hopes of diversifying its business from online games.

Japanese automakers have been mostly wary of self-driving technology. One reason is a lack of proper legal frameworks at home and abroad, which makes it unclear who bears what responsibility in accidents involving such vehicles. A representative of a major Japanese automaker said, "Without the necessary infrastructure like traffic lights and roads, [self-driving cars] won't actually take off."

Nissan and Honda Motor are also rushing to develop autonomous driving technology, setting up special units. Roland Berger, an European consultancy, predicts that self-driving "robo-taxis" will spread, accelerating the shift from owning cars to hiring them for short periods. This view is shared by many in the industry. Waymo is already testing its robo-taxis in restricted areas in the U.S. state of Arizona.

Key factors

Autonomous driving depends on three key factors: cognition, decision-making and control. In particular, decision-making requires AI for high-level information processing, and automakers lack expertise in this area. By contrast, IT companies such as Google and Nvidia have a major presence in the field.

Some in the auto industry think it will take a while for IT companies to take control of the industry because "making cars requires metal processing and technology to mass-produce chassis, and that is not so easy" for IT companies, a representative of a major auto component maker said.

Nonetheless, self-driving vehicles will surely make cars more convenient and drastically change how people own and use them. Falling behind the times could prove fatal to automakers.

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