TOKYO -- Major Japanese automakers and autoparts suppliers will join hands in research and development of autonomous driving vehicles to narrow the gap with U.S. and European rivals.
An agreement has been reached among companies that have been participating in a study panel set up by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The group includes six carmakers, including Toyota Motor, Nissan Motor and Honda Motor, as well as such major manufacturers of auto electronics as Denso, Renesas Electronics and Panasonic. They aim to start conducting tests on public roads in 2020.
Their joint efforts will encompass technologies for maps, communications, ergonomics and other fields. As a start, they will focus on digital maps, since highly precise 3-D map data will be essential for commercializing self-driving cars.
Japanese automakers have been working separately on digital map technology, but they will now work together to develop standards and usage methods, looking to draw up a blueprint by March 2017.
Drafting international standards for autonomous vehicles will also be a focus of their collaboration. The industry ministry, the transport ministry, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and others are to set up a research center for autonomous driving next month to create a single window through which discussions on safety technologies, communications protocols and other issues can be coordinated with institutions such as the United Nations and the International Organization for Standardization.
Driven to cooperate
The realization that they are falling behind Europe and the U.S. in development of autonomous driving technology spurred the Japanese automakers to come together.
Europe is seen leading Japan in vehicle safety technologies, such as automatic braking for collision avoidance. The Japanese industry is feeling a sense of crisis that Europe and the U.S. will play the central role in the field of autonomous driving as well.
The massive costs required and the difficulty of finding people with the right expertise also prompted Japanese industry to join hands.
The eight biggest Japanese automakers planned to pour nearly 3 trillion yen ($26.8 billion) into R&D in the year ending this month, which would be a record amount.
"It's unclear which technology will become mainstream, so we've had to sharply expand our research fields," a director at a major Japanese automaker said. "This has made it necessary for us to spend much more funds and deploy far more human resources."
Japanese automakers are finding it particularly difficult to find people versed in communications, artificial intelligence and recognition technologies -- all essential for developing self-driving cars. For this reason, Toyota and Honda have opened R&D bases in Silicon Valley.
By 2025, roughly 600,000 fully autonomous vehicles and about 14 million partially self-driving cars will be on the roads worldwide, according to Boston Consulting Group of the U.S.