News Article

2020 Olympics driving autonomous driving monetization

One day last December, a self-driving bus in Gunma finished the 18km route between Maebashi and Shibukawa, driving off fare-paying passengers at designated stops and on public roads.

The driver, who had the bus running by a simple push of a button, remained behind the wheel but kept the intervention to a minimum. The bus, with a range of cameras and sensors, was limited to 30km/h.

The bus completed the trip in an hour, twice a day for about nine days from Gunma University to Shibukawa Station, as part of a pilot program developed by the college, the local Bus, the Prefecture of Gunma and NEC.

The goal is to achieve the objective set by the Japanese government to get driverless vehicles on Japan’s roads by the end of the year.

The step highlights that self-driving vehicles no longer represent a dream for the far future; they are just around the corner. In reality, hundreds of protests take place this year as the nation’s top car manufacturers use Tokyo to introduce their big plans to as many people as possible.

2020 will mark the new market, where approximately 80 self-driving vehicles will be displayed before the Olympics.

“The Tokyo Olympics will unmistakably mark 2020 as the year of automotive driving,” said Yoshitaka Tanaka, associate and automotive industry chief at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting LLC in Tokyo. The pilot program is headed by the Center for Research on the Approval of the NextGen Transport Systems (CRANTS) at the Gunma University, which concentrates more of its work on rural, depopulated areas, where the lack of public transportation causes a problem for the elderly.

“I also hear you complain about a shortage of transport in populated areas mainly occupied by the elderly. My dream is to solve this problem,” said Takeki Ogitsu, Associate Professor at Gunma University, CRANTS deputy director.

Automated driving is split into six stages. Levels zero to 2 are driven by people. Drivers from level 3 onwards are not liable even if they are sitting in the driver’s seat.

CRANTS plans to skip level 3 and go straight to level 4 by this year putting a few unmanned vehicles on public roads. He already has negotiations with many towns, and if he succeeds, it will become Japan’s first commercial operation to operate an autonomous car network on a public road, said Ogitsu.

Since October 2016, it has held 35 demonstrations–by far the most in Japan.

“Gunma University is the only one in Japan to have issued a Green Bus license plate that allows autonomous passenger bus services to pay for the like of ordinary bus operators,” said Ogitsu.

Several other companies plan to begin similar projects this year, and ZMP Inc. is one of the start-up robot builders.

ZMP plans to launch an automated electric bus at Chubu Centrair International Airport this year.

ZMP works with Centrair to launch the unmanned service later this year. It would be the first marketing in a domestic airport of a level 3 driving service, ZMP founder and CEO Hisashi Taniguchi said.

This year’s startup also plans to experiment to show the level 3 tractors at Narita and Kansai airports to alleviate labour shortages, Taniguchi said.

Since 2018, hundreds of self-driving trials have been held throughout Japan, primarily for mobility-impaired seniors who live in depopulated regions.

These include e-palette vehicles from Toyota, which are intended for the transport of the Olympic Village athletes.

Japan’s largest automaker also provides a ride in the TRI-P4, a Level 4 test car based on Lexus LS sedan, from July to September in Tokyo’s Odaiba waterfront district.

These projects are part of the government’s objective this year to introduce Level 3 vehicles on highways and Level 4 mobility services in selected areas.

The Road Traffic Act has been amended to clear the environment for the introduction of urban highways self-driving vehicles.

Other objectives also include making level 4 possible on highways by 2025 and level 5 possible on all roads this decade.

Nevertheless, Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting’s Tanaka said level 5 will be tough to achieve in 2020 because many measures that still need to be tackled, including a lack of communication capacity to store large amounts of data required for automation, the need for regulatory changes of fully autonomous vehicles and whether self-driving technologies will ever become a concern.

Despite the complexity of the issue, self-driving cars have a great deal of potential and could contribute to solving long-term social challenges.

The government believes that self-driving technology will effectively curb fatal accidents because drivers who break the rules cause the overwhelming majority of them.

Japan aims to reduce annual deaths by the end of the year to 2,500 or below. In 2018, the figure was 3,532.

Although traffic fatalities fell to the lowest level of record in 2018, drivers 75 and over are increasing, since many are caused by mistaken steps on the accelerator rather than the brake.

For example, Toyota says that vehicles with excellent safety characteristics have 70 per cent reduced accidents.

Autonomous vehicle services are also seen as a boon for the elderly as bus services decrease across the country, particularly in depopulated rural areas.

Almost two-thirds of Japan’s bus companies are losing money amid a shrinking and grey population, according to government figures. It pushes the government to push for driverless transportation systems in more than 100 areas by 2030.

The solution to the nation’s labour shortage may also be self-driving vehicles.

Autonomous technology should also play a part in “truck platooning,” with several unmanned lorries following a manned lorry that forms a caravan. This could help solve the driver crisis and also increase fuel efficiency. The government has demonstrated on the Shin-Tomei Expressway with intends to launch the mechanism by 2022.

This month, Honda is supposed to be the first domestic automaker to produce a Level 3 vehicle–an iconic high-end sedan that can run on highways at low speeds.

Toya is now planning to launch a vehicle with highway teammate level 2 technologies this year that can accommodate highway driving, like fusion, lane change and junctions, says Toyota’s Global Relations Director, Katsuhiko Koganei.

At home, Toyota, Nissan and SoftBank are among other companies that are trying to introduce fully independent automobiles that can operate on all roads, but it won’t be easy.

Overseas, Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo introduced Phoenix in December 2018 with a human driver behind the wheel in case of an emergency, the first national private, self-driving taxi service.

On the other side, the CRANTS at Gunma University takes a slightly different direction when trying to achieve unmanaged road transport by restricting operational areas more rapidly. To date, there have been no traffic accidents in its presentations, Ogitsu said.

“We intend to initially operate in pretty secluded out of town areas and extend its practical application little by little,” he said, adding that the maximum speed for level 4 operations can be set at 20km/h or lower.

“There are still areas in Japan which, despite the low speed, want unmanned autonomous vehicles and we will prioritise system deployment in that area.”

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