By the time Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, self-driving cars may be a feature on Japan’s roads as local automakers work to develop the technology in the next five years.

Tokyo-based Robot Taxi Inc., though not an auto manufacturer, also hopes to launch a self-driving cab service by that time, which it believes will help reduce traffic accidents, improve mobility and energize rural areas.

While the firm says the technology is ready for practical use, hurdles remain, including the high cost of components and the need to amend traffic laws.

“It will still take some time for self-driving cars to be able to drive everywhere . . . but they are a (viable) technology with the right setting and under the right circumstances,” said Robot Taxi Chairman Hisashi Taniguchi in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Self-driving vehicles basically work using a combination of sensors, location information and artificial intelligence.

The cars receive mapping data on their intended routes and verify their exact positions by checking their surroundings and other data via sensors, including cameras, millimeter-wave radar and laser scanners, while computers process the data and other information.

Taniguchi said that as long as the mapping data are available, the vehicles can safely drive themselves. But self-driving is difficult when road situations are complicated, such as in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, where pedestrian crossings at intersections are extremely crowded.

As is the case for humans, self-driving systems don’t work well in places where people also have a hard time driving, said Taniguchi, who also heads ZMP Inc., a Tokyo-based robot technology firm.

Robot Taxi was jointly founded by ZMP and mobile game-maker DeNA Co. in May, based on expectations that the auto industry will undergo an IT revolution in coming years. ZMP is in charge of developing self-driving technology, while DeNA will be working on software.

Taniguchi stressed the new taxi service can bring about positive impacts, especially in rural areas where local taxi operators have gone out of business due to a shortage of drivers as the population ages.

Because alternative transportation is scarce, “local residents have to drive even when they are 90 years old. They have no choice, since they can’t go anywhere (without cars),” said Taniguchi.

As a result, the number of car accidents caused by senior citizens is increasing in Japan.

While Robot Taxi plans to have 3,000 cabs driving in Tokyo when the Olympics take place, it also aims to first introduce the service in areas lacking sufficient taxis to help improve residents’ mobility.

“The service will lead to the creation of jobs because employees will be needed to maintain the taxis. We’ve heard from taxi operators in rural areas who are interested in our business,” he said, brushing aside concerns that robot taxis would take away jobs that people perform.

While expectations for automated driving are high, regulations remain a hurdle.

The Geneva Conventions, to which Japan is a signatory, state that “Every vehicle or combination of vehicles proceeding as a unit shall have a driver.”

Because of the rise of self-driving technologies, experts around the world are looking to amend this regulation, but it is unclear when it will happen.

The nation’s Road Traffic Law also bans driverless cars. The law permits the use of autonomous driving systems only if someone is in the driver’s seat who can be ready to respond if required.

While carmakers say their autonomous driving systems are based on the premise that people remain behind the wheel, Robot Taxi aims to provide driverless taxi services.

To move things forward, Taniguchi said it was important to win the public’s trust that driverless taxis were safe. To that end, early next year Robot Taxi will run experiments. They will take place in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, where about 50 local residents will take a robot taxi to a supermarket about 3 km from their homes.

An attendant will be sitting in the driver’s seat for safety purposes but the car will be driving on its own.

“If people realize how safe and comfortable self-driving vehicles are, the momentum to change the regulations will grow,” said Taniguchi, who is optimistic regulations will be ready for self-driving vehicles by 2020.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated the government may seek to amend the law by then.

Still, the notion of driverless cars naturally continues to raise safety concerns.

But Taniguchi and carmakers believe self-driving cars will help reduce accidents, instead of increasing risks, as most crashes are caused by human error.

“Sensors have a wider view compared to humans. Thus, while humans might have a hard time reacting to people suddenly rushing out into the street, the sensors can detect them more quickly,” he said.

Plus, self-driving cars don’t lose concentration like humans by looking away or dozing off, and it is possible for them to monitor a 360-degree view simultaneously.

Such sensors are still expensive, however, because they are not yet mass-produced.

Taniguchi also pointed out that it was still costly to develop the mapping data that needed to be preprogrammed in automated cars.

Cars with even more sensors than self-driving vehicles will become necessary to collect road data, but making such cars and maintaining the data will be costly. But he said the costs are likely to decrease, as carmakers manufacture more automated cars in coming years.

Taniguchi said it was also essential to guard against possible cyberattacks on self-driving cars. His firm plans to make it impossible for people to write programs to hack into the taxi self-driving systems.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, or on the second Tuesday when Monday is a press holiday, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in the coming years.

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