February 15, 2017 5:00 am JST

Japan looks to self-driving cars to bolster transport access

Service to ferry rural seniors targeted for 2020

TOKYO -- The Japanese government aims to have self-driving vehicles provide transport for senior citizens and others with limited vehicle access by 2020, encouraging development of the technology to address growing social challenges.

A government council on investments for the future, chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will soon set 2020 as the target for commercializing automated-driving technology in a push to improve access to transportation and boost efficiency in the logistics sector. Necessary legal changes will be made starting next fiscal year, with testing of specific technologies set to begin shortly.

Beginning in fiscal 2017, driverless cars and buses will be brought to more than 10 areas across Japan -- near highway rest stations, for example -- to take the elderly and other residents to stores and hospitals. The current plan would have the trials supervised remotely. The shutdown of public transportation in a number of depopulated areas, coupled with the reluctance of many seniors to drive on their own, has left an estimated 7 million Japanese residents with limited transportation access.

The logistics sector is also seen benefiting from automated driving. The Shin-Tomei Expressway, which runs part of the way between Tokyo and Nagoya, will be equipped to allow largely autonomous truck convoys. Several driverless vehicles follow a human-driven truck to which they are wirelessly linked. This could include creating dedicated lanes in certain areas. The technology will be tested with drivers present in all vehicles starting next January, and with only a lead driver beginning a year later.

The council will also release plans for a legal framework to help put self-driving vehicles on the road. Steps including revisions to the Road Traffic Act are thought to be necessary. Safety measures -- such as protocols for what to do if trucks in a convoy lose their connection to the lead vehicle -- and licensing procedures are to be discussed with entities including the National Police Agency and the infrastructure ministry.

The government will compile a basic strategy for automated driving in fiscal 2017, given that many of the laws relating to the technology are administered by multiple ministries and agencies.

Efforts are underway to alter United Nations policies requiring that a driver be able to take physical control of a vehicle in an emergency. Some critics see the rule as out of step with developments in automated-driving technology.

The U.S. state of Michigan in December passed a law allowing autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roadways. Japan aims to encourage similar experimentation.

(Nikkei) 

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