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Politics

Japan revamps laws to put self-driving cars on roads

Drivers will be allowed to look at smartphones while operating level 3 vehicles

Japan is setting new standards for equipment used in self-driving cars, like cameras and sensors.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan looks to clear a path for allowing self-driving cars on public roads, by updating traffic law to set new standards for driver conduct and vehicle safety like those already enacted in other advanced economies.

The government aims to have automobiles that can handle routine driving without human input -- so-called level 3 autonomous vehicles -- on the roads by 2020. But the country's legal framework does not address issues related to such vehicles, a problem that has held back their development by Japanese players.

On Friday, Japan's cabinet approved amendments to the Road Transport Vehicle Law that will create requirements for cameras, sensors and regulatory equipment used in self-driving cars. Rules also will be devised to cover testing and servicing of self-driving systems. Government approval will be needed for any wireless updates to self-driving programs.

Private-sector auto insurance will be required to cover accidents caused by self-driving cars, at least for level 3 vehicles. While riding level 3 cars, drivers will be allowed to look at their smartphones, but they could be held responsible for accidents caused by poor maintenance or ignoring warnings from the vehicles.

Japanese automakers stand to benefit from these changes. Though Toyota Motor and Honda Motor aim to commercialize level 3 cars by the early 2020s, they trail players like Google, General Motors and China's Baidu when it comes to testing them on public roads.

Efforts to create global rules covering self-driving cars have begun through a United Nations body commonly referred to as WP. 29. Several standards already exist for autonomous steering wheels. Autonomous brakes and cybersecurity are key topics for debate as well. Japan hopes its new rules will put the country at the forefront of these debates.

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