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Japan police OK testing of driverless cars on public roads

Move is seen spurring tech development and offering new transport options

A driverless bus is tested along a closed public road along Lake Tazawa, in the northern Japanese prefecture of Akita.

TOKYO -- Japan's National Police Agency on Thursday released a list of rules governing the testing of driverless cars on public roads. The regulations will officially take effect by the end of May, pending feedback from the public.  

It is the first time the agency has greenlighted the use of such vehicles on public roads.

Once the rules are officially endorsed, companies and research institutes will be able to test their cars in real traffic situations.

A company must meet three conditions to receive a test permit from the NPA: The technology has already been tested on a track; the test vehicle is equipped with a telecommunications system; and the driving conditions during testing can be monitored remotely with the same degree of precision as a person sitting in the driver's seat.

The NPA also said prospective applicants should first seek to win the consent of residents living around the planned testing site. The agency could begin accepting applications as early as summer.

The development of driverless cars, led by Google and European automakers, is gathering steam among Japanese companies. The ability to test their technology on public roads would likely speed up their development work and help them amass knowledge more quickly.

Should the tests lead to practical applications of the cars, it could help ease Japan's shortage of drivers for transport services and offer an alternative means of transportation in depopulated areas.

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