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DRIVING IN THE FUTURE

Automated driving tech comes to the fore

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

In November, a prospective customer was at the wheel of Mazda Motor Corp.’s new sport utility vehicle during a demonstration in Fukaya, Saitama Prefecture. With a sales rep in the passenger seat, the 38-year-old man drove the car toward a urethane mat hanging 7 meters ahead to test the collision avoidance feature, which is supposed to activate the brakes when sensors detect an imminent collision.

Instead of stopping in front of the mat, however, the SUV brushed it aside, barreled on another 6.6 meters and crashed into a fence, leaving the driver with a neck injury and the sales rep with a broken arm.

Before you blame Mazda, the cause of the accident is still under investigation and may turn out to be human error. But while the first reported instance of automatic brakes failing will raise doubts in the minds of consumers, automatic driving technologies — including braking systems — are on the way.

The Japan Times takes a look at how far these technologies have come:

Have any other accidents related to automatic driving technologies been reported?

According to the transport ministry, there have been no other mishaps involving automatic braking since the Fukaya incident, but in May a collision avoidance system in a Toyota car caused an accident on the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway in Katsushika Ward when it misinterpreted a radar signal bouncing off the vehicle next to it as a threat. The car automatically slowed — and was abruptly rear-ended by a truck.

In June, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. reported that it had received a number of complaints about its collision avoidance system misidentifying tunnel walls as vehicles, causing unexpected slowdowns.

Both companies submitted remedial measures to the transport ministry and are recalling the vehicles in question.

Should we trust these new technologies or are they just a gimmick?

Despite some problems, experts and officials see the safety benefits of automatic driving as far outweighing the risks.

Transport official Keisuke Kinumata said the technologies are “definitely worth it.” In fact, the ministry is including them among the “advanced safety vehicle” technologies it promotes as enhancing driver safety.

Euro NCAP, a European organ that assesses the safety performance of vehicles, estimates that collision avoidance systems can reduce accidents by up to 27 percent.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed confidence in the systems by riding vehicles from Nissan, Honda and Toyota during a joint test drive outside the Diet building in November.

Critics, however, point out that if you lack the mental concentration or physical skills needed to stay in your lane or avoid collisions, you probably shouldn’t be driving in the first place.

What kinds of technologies are currently available?

According to Tatsuo Yoshida, a leading auto industry analyst at Barclays Securities Japan Ltd., the most competitive areas of automatic driving systems fall into two categories: those that assist braking to prevent collisions and those that keep the vehicle from inadvertently veering out of its lane.

An example of the first category, which in Japan is often called a “pre-crash safety system,” is the EyeSight system installed on Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru cars. EyeSight, which the company claims is the first system to become available for commercial use, uses stereo vision cameras mounted inside the windshield to recognize vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians ahead. When Eyesight determines a collision is likely, it warns the driver with an alarm and a flashing screen. If no corrective action is taken, it engages the brakes to avert the crash or reduce the impact.

An example of the second category is Honda’s lane-keeping assist system, which is designed for expressways. It uses a camera inside the windshield to monitor the vehicle’s course against the lane stripes on the road.

When the LKAS determines the vehicle is drifting too far to either side, whether because of a sharp crosswind or driver negligence, it automatically takes corrective action. If it looks like the vehicle might cross the white lane stripe, it warns the driver by sounding an alarm.

How much do these systems cost?

Automatic driving systems are being marketed as safety features and come in various configurations and prices.

The systems include Volvo Car Japan Ltd.’s Human Safety system, which combines pre-crash safety with lane-keeping assist and costs ¥200,000, and EyeSight, which performs both functions in low-speed and expressway situations and costs ¥100,000.

Daihatsu Motor Co.’s Smart Assist, a pre-crash system, is a ¥50,000 option on its “kei” minivehicles.

What precautions should be taken when using these systems?

The features available today are intended to reduce the risk of accidents or assist normal driving, including steering, braking and acceleration, not take over the driver’s responsibilities.

“Excessive reliance would be dangerous,” analyst Yoshida warns. “The important thing is to keep in mind what your car can do and what it can’t.”

How will these systems change the future of driving?

The futuristic vision evoked by the term “automatic driving” — a self-driving car that goes wherever you wish at the push of a button or a simple voice command — is still a long way off.

Indeed, Yoshida doubts that such a car will ever come to be, given the technological and infrastructure hurdles.

Futurist Sakae Tanaka, the CEO of Aquabit Corp., points out that the ultimate target of self-driving technologies is not to make vehicles autonomous but to create a new form of mobility.

“You have to think of it separately (from automobiles as we know them),” he said. “What’s a car anyway? It’s what you use to go wherever you want to go, at your will. If it drives itself, it’s a different category of transportation.”

That said, in a more controlled environment, such as on an expressway, we may get a chance to experience hands-free “driving” in the not-so-distant future, according to Takaki Nakanishi, a leading auto industry analyst at Nakanishi Research Institute Co.

Nakanishi thinks self-driving cars are “absolutely” possible within a 10-year time frame, assuming that the technologies will be accepted, the infrastructure built and the proper regulations passed.

Noting that both collision-avoidance and lane-keeping systems are already available on many domestic cars, he predicts these technologies will become standard in the next few years, just like seat belts and air bags.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .