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Race is on to develop self-driving autos

by Kayo Mimizuka

Kyodo

Cars that drive themselves used to be a pipe dream, only to be seen in the movies. But with cars already packed with information technology, the idea is no longer far-fetched for global automakers, and the competition is heating up.

U.S. companies are leading the way. Last year, Google Inc. posted a video on YouTube showing a car traveling on its own while its “driver” eats a hamburger, with his hands completely off the steering wheel. The clip, covering a slice of the firm’s 320,000 km of computer-led driving tests on public roads, has been viewed almost 5 million times.

Google is aiming to introduce the technology by 2017, while General Motors Co. has announced a plan to put its own automated driving technology into practical use in the second half of the decade.

With the new technology expected to reduce accidents caused by human error and give opportunities for the elderly and the disabled to travel by car, rivals are also entering the race.

Nissan Motor Co. was among the first of Japan’s automakers to announce plans to market self-driving cars. The firm is looking to put the technology on the market by 2020, and has set up a driving test facility near Tokyo.

“Obviously, we’ve seen the reaction from the public. There is a lot of attention and thirst from everybody about the automated car,” Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said earlier this month as he sat behind the wheel to test his firm’s prototype self-driving car at the CEATEC high-tech show in Tokyo.

“We are under pressure from a lot of competition. . . . We’re going to get there even sooner than we think. What’s going to be left is only the reliability of the system.”

Nissan is looking to begin the first tests of its driverless car, equipped with artificial intelligence, on public roads in Japan.

Toyota Motor Corp. has also recently announced it is joining the battle. It is planning to launch a safety system for highways featuring automated driving technology in the middle of this decade, but its approach differs slightly from Google and Nissan, both of which aim to build completely driverless cars.

“Of course we want to establish a perfect technology for automated driving, but we believe it always needs to be a human that drives a car, and such technology would just serve as a support for drivers. We are not planning to market cars that run without a driver,” said Susumu Umemura, general manager at Toyota’s future project division.

“But it will definitely be one of the most important technologies we need to put resources into down the road. We would like to deliver it to our customers as soon as possible.”

Honda Motor Co. unveiled a prototype of its automated driving car Tuesday at the ITS World Congress held in Tokyo. The car is equipped with camera, sensor and telecommunication systems. It stops when it senses danger, and can drive itself from point to point.

Though Honda has not unveiled a specific date for putting the vehicle on the market, it is a “must-win game and we will definitely put a lot of effort into this area,” said Naoki Hayashibe, general manager at the technology development division.