Automotive companies around the world are racing towards creating a hands-free driving experience for the transportation fleet. With the projected revenues estimated to be worth as much as USD 87 billion a year by 2030, the world’s biggest car companies have every incentive to push for a head start in the race to build fully autonomous vehicles (AVs). On the other hand, direct and indirect support from the governments can affect the trend of extending AVs in different countries. Japan, as one of the pioneer countries in automotive industries with some of the top companies, has been taking huge steps in extending AVs in its transportation fleet (1). I think today is the perfect time to become more familiar with different aspects of the AVs industry in Japan, by focusing on their AV market, and the companies that are active in the race to produce autonomous vehicles in this country.
Japan’s operations in AV manufacturing have been very eye-catching in recent years. Japan has risen from fifth to third on the technology and innovation pillar of the 2020 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI), and has the largest number of AV-related patents of any country in recent searches (2). In September 2019, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department issued new regulations on AV testing; including limiting the speed of vehicles to 20 kph (12 mph), meeting cybersecurity standards, and installing recording devices in case of traffic accidents. But Japan should do more for accidents involving AVs; including stating how these should be investigated and analyzed, and deciding who bears liability, according to Megumu Komikado, Partner and Head of KPMG Mobility Research Japan, and Head of Automotive, KPMG in Japan. Komikado adds that the country has a number of advantages in introducing AVs, including good standards of driving etiquette and road maintenance. It is ranked third among countries in the AVRI by the World Economic Forum, for its road quality. It also has a strong vehicle manufacturing sector, with Honda and tech companies specializing in relevant areas, including LIDAR, image recognition, and dynamic mapping (2).
However, there are also still some obstacles for AVs in this country today. While Japan has good 4G mobile coverage, the introduction of 5G has been delayed in this and other countries, including South Korea. Other challenges include the fact that Japan’s road network includes a large number of tunnels, multi-level highways, and very narrow urban streets which will be hard for AVs to navigate. The country also suffers from a shortage of engineers specializing in IoT technologies and, in particular, AI. Komikado says Japan could improve its readiness with further legal and regulatory changes, and measures to support increases in engineering capacity. He also advocates a special zone for testing AVs at level 4 and above, created by the public and private sectors. “We expect that by 2025, maybe before, the conditions for Level 4 will be met, at least for special zones and areas,” he says (2).
Toyota, Nissan, and Honda have been known as the pioneers among Japanese car manufacturing companies that are doing their best to develop the AV industry, not only in Japan, but also in the world. In the following, we will take a glance at the recent accomplishment of these companies in extending the AV industry.
The Honda Motor Company, Ltd. is a Japanese public multinational conglomerate manufacture of automobiles, motorcycles, and power equipment that is headquartered in Minato, Tokyo, Japan. In 2021, Honda launched a new car, equipped with the world’s first certified level 3 autonomous driving technology; paving the way for the automobile industry to redouble its efforts to commercialize such automation for passenger vehicles (3). Honda is taking a cautious approach to introduce this cutting-edge function. Only 100 units will be produced, available only for lease sales. The model is priced at 11 million yen (USD 102,000). Another reason for the limited run is the need to "explain this new technology clearly," said Kimiyoshi Teratani, who manages Honda's Japan business, adding that leasing would allow regular and thorough maintenance (3).
On the other hand, Japan’s biggest car producer Toyota, has set ambitious goals in creating driverless cars in recent years. In order to increase their R&D efforts, Toyota has initiated a USD 10 million bid to build testing grounds in Detroit, and invested USD 50 million into creating an artificial intelligence research center, in partnership with MIT and Stanford University. Moreover, Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled new versions of the Lexus LS and Toyota Mirai in Japan, both equipped with advanced-driver assistance. Toyota officials in the US said that 2022 LS 500h AWD with ‘Advanced Drive’, as the system is called, is expected to arrive at dealerships this fall (4). “Rather than cars taking over driving from people and taking their place,” the company said, “drivers and cars act as partners to protect one another so that drivers can enjoy the experience of driving while deferring to automated driving at times, achieving truly safe, secure, and unrestricted mobility.” The system includes ‘Advanced Park’, for hands-free parking, controlling steering, acceleration, braking, and gear changes when parallel parking or backing into a parking space. Advanced Park uses 360-degree sensing, integrating the functions of complete-circumference cameras and ultrasonic sensors. It also provides a bird’s-eye view display. The LS starts at about USD 149,000 in Japan, and the Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan around USD 76,000. The new models are Toyota’s first products for sale that have OTA (over-the-air) updates and use AI technology for “deep learning”, Toyota said in a release (4).
Nissan is another active company in this field, that has taken significant measures in recent years. Nissan launched their ‘Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM)’ system, developed in cooperation with NASA, to achieve fully autonomous mobility. It partners in-vehicle artificial intelligence (AI) with remote human support, to assist driverless autonomous vehicles make decisions in unpredictable situations such as with obstructions on the road. It also collects the information of all their vehicles into the Cloud, in order to build the knowledge bank of in-vehicle AI. This technology will enable millions of self-driving vehicles to operate safely and smoothly on the road sooner, with human assistance. These vehicles can tell the traffic condition, and even recognize some hand gestures; but human judgment is required to set the appropriate course. When the driverless vehicle encounters obstacles on the road, it brings itself to a safe stop and requests help from the command center. The request is routed to the mobility manager, who decides on the correct action, and creates a safe path around the obstruction (5).
In summary, the measures that have been taken not only by the government, but also by the private sector and companies in Japan, attract global attention around the AV industry. Everyone is eager to observe the eye-catching advancement in the near future by this country, that is predicted by the experts in the field.
(1) Automotive Vehicles in Japan: Mini Report, Strategic Trade Team, Department for International Trade, Japan, April 2017
(2) 2020 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index