Japan to open roads to self-driving vehicles in April
Published on: Friday, October 28, 2022
By: Nikkei Asia, FMT
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Japan’s move comes as local startups make strides toward bringing the technology to roads. (Wiki Commons pic)
TOKYO: Japan plans to allow nearly autonomous vehicles on public roads in a limited capacity starting this spring, paving the way for services such as robotaxis and driverless buses.

Under plans revealed this week, the National Police Agency seeks next April to lift a ban on so-called Level 4 self-driving vehicles, which can operate without a driver under certain conditions.

Japan’s move comes as local startups make strides toward bringing the technology to roads. SoftBank Group-backed Boldly recently announced a partnership with Estonia’s Auve Tech that aims to put Level 4 self-driving buses on Japanese roads by fiscal 2023.

Japan’s government aims to have mobility services featuring Level 4 vehicles in 40 areas by 2025 and more than 100 by 2030.

“We plan to have that many projects just on our own,” Boldly CEO Yuki Saji said.

Another startup, Nagoya-based Tier IV, in February began a trial of self-driving shuttle buses to ferry passengers between terminals at Narita Airport near Tokyo, working with partners including telecoms KDDI and NTT.

Details on Japan’s new rules for Level 4 cars, including when they will be allowed on roads, will be announced after a public comment period set to end in November.

In China, search giant Baidu in August became the first company in the country to receive permits to operate fully driverless robotaxis, and began service in Wuhan and Chongqing that month.

Unlike less-advanced Level 3 technology, Level 4 is supposed to bring vehicles to a safe stop without a driver when necessary – such is in dangerous driving conditions.

Enthusiasm about the race to Level 4 has been mixed among Japanese automakers. Toyota and Nissan have done research on the technology but have not given a time frame for rolling out cars or services that use it.

Players with a head start have faced a hard road to commercialising this level of self-driving technology, which requires expensive investments in sensors and software.

Google parent Alphabet’s Waymo unit started development around 2010, originally aiming for mass production as soon as 2017. However, the company has yet to reach that point.

Argo AI, an American startup backed by Ford and Volkswagen, said yesterday it is closing. When Ford invested in Argo in 2017, it had expected Level 4 self-driving technology to be in broad use by 2021.

“Profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off,” Ford chief Jim Farley said in a statement.