Japan May Target ‘Driverless driving’ for early 2020s

Japan’s Land, Infrastructure, Tourism Ministry will soon embark on a project to realize an “autopilot system” for automatic driving, a system for guiding motor vehicles on expressways without human assistance.

The envisioned autopilot system is expected to contribute significantly to such goals as alleviating drivers’ fatigue, preventing road accidents and easing traffic congestion. It would be for vehicles referred to as self-driving cars capable of sensing their environment and navigating by themselves, with people not required to perform any mechanical operation besides choosing their destinations.

With a view to making an autopilot system a reality in the early 2020s, the ministry will launch a study panel of experts at the end of this month or later, to start full-scale discussions about a self-steering vehicle control project.

“The system could prevent such accidents as a vehicle veering out of a lane, as happened with the tour bus that struck a wall alongside Kanetsu Expressway on April 29,” an official of the ministry’s Road Bureau said.

The autopilot driving system would also enable the elderly, who sometimes have difficulty making quick judgments and keeping attentive while driving, to use expressways safely, according to the ministry.

The ministry said about 60 percent of traffic jams on expressways are due to vehicles slowing down on ascending slopes.

By having vehicles travel up slopes without decelerating, by means of the autopilot system, traffic congestion would be eased significantly, the ministry said. It would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Some motor vehicles in practical use already have such functions as using radar to maintain a certain distance from the vehicle in front of them. There also are vehicles that sound a warning when they are about to swerve from a lane for such reasons as the driver dozing behind the wheel.

Meanwhile, antenna networks for transmitting information to drivers about traffic congestion and potential accidents on expressways were completed across the country last year, the ministry said.

A ministry official said, “The planned autopilot system, in combination with the road information transmission system already in place, will make it technically possible to realize driverless driving in about 10 years.”

There are, however, a number of hurdles that must be cleared before this can happen. Among them are how to design a central control center in charge of administering traffic on expressway lanes exclusively for autopilot vehicles, and the feasibility of using an automatic tracking function to have one vehicle guide a number of others.

It would also be extremely expensive if roads have to be built exclusively for autopilot vehicles, raising the problem of how to fund such construction, the ministry said.

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