TOKYO -- The competition between automakers is moving far beyond incremental improvements in fuel economy and subtle design tweaks. These days, companies are dreaming up new technologies that will change automobiles as we know them, shake up industries and alter the way we live and work.
Nissan Motor envisions how you might interact with your car sometime in the 2020s: "You've had one high-calorie meal after another," the car informs you. "How about soba noodles for lunch?"
"Fine," you say. "Do you know any good restaurants?"
"There's one about five minutes from here. Do you want to go?"
Say "yes," and the self-driving vehicle will take you there. Along the way, you can use the in-car screen to check the weather or see what your friends are up to.
On longer trips, you will be able to catch a movie or read a book. But the car will be more than a moving living room or office; the artificial intelligence system will monitor your health and mood.
"I'll be a guinea pig"
In October, Nissan showed off a prototype self-driving car to the media. The vehicle was equipped with 12 cameras and five radars, allowing it to detect other cars, pedestrians and the colors of traffic lights.
Nissan is hardly alone in developing autonomous vehicles. General Motors of the U.S. and other automakers are stepping up their own projects. But the Japanese company is determined to be out in front of the competition. "We take pride in being world leaders," said Takao Asami, Nissan's senior vice president in charge of new technologies.
Of course, the advent of self-driving technology is disrupting the traditional auto industry and making space for newcomers. Enter ZMP, a Japanese startup that is rapidly making headway, powered by investments from the likes of Intel and Sony.
With DeNA, a Japanese social media and gaming company, ZMP has already set up a joint company focused on robot-operated taxis. It hopes to use the cabs during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, shuttling people between sports venues, airports and other places.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on companies to have a "guinea pig mentality" and continually seek new innovations. "I'll be a guinea pig," Hisashi Taniguchi, ZMP's chief executive officer, told Abe in November during a public-private dialogue on future-oriented investment. At the time, the government presented a plan to ease regulations and make way for self-driving cars.
Japan is expected to allow testing of automated driving, with virtually no use of a steering wheel, on public roads in 2017.
Not to be outdone, Toyota Motor has a future project section in a building near Tokyo's bustling Shibuya Station. In the office, about 10 staff members ponder how the automaker should approach a world in which 3-D printers can make food and thoughts can be read by monitoring electrons in the brain.
The carmaker hopes to find answers to a bigger question: How the Japanese auto industry can stay competitive in such an age.