NPA drafts rules for testing driverless cars on public roads

Kyodo

The National Police Agency on Thursday unveiled draft rules for testing driverless vehicles on public roads while the vehicles are being monitored remotely.

At present no vehicle can proceed along a public road without someone in the driver’s seat. Once the rules are officially in place, the agency will start accepting applications to conduct tests this summer, at the earliest.

Japan is seeking to promote the development of self-driving car technology in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics amid an international race to develop autonomous vehicles.

“The development of automated driving could help the elderly secure a means of transportation, slash the number of traffic accidents and ease traffic congestion,” said an agency official.

The move comes after the NPA compiled guidelines last May to permit self-driving tests on public roads with a driver inside.

With safety the foremost consideration, the draft rules require people in charge of testing to have a driver’s license and stipulate that they could be held responsible in the event of an accident.

The rules also require testers to check the safety of vehicles fitted with an autonomous driving system at test courses and obtain a road-use permit by having police officers board the vehicles and check whether they comply with traffic regulations.

In addition, the rules call for testers to inform the local community in advance and display a message at the front and rear of each vehicle that it is being tested.

A test permit is valid for up to six months, and tests must be conducted in areas where there is unbroken wireless access. Testers must also avoid times and places where testing would significantly affect traffic.

Other rules include requiring testers remotely monitoring the vehicles to be able to apply brakes and to have access to the same level of visual and audio information on the driving environment as a driver in the car would.

Safety issues have been in focus, particularly after a fatal accident in the United States, in which the driver of a Tesla equipped with an autopilot system for highway driving died in a collision with a semi-trailer last year.

The Cabinet Office recently tested a self-driving bus on a public road in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture, with the driver only responsible for applying the brakes.

During some 100 test runs between March 20 and April 2, there were no significant incidents, the office said.

“We conducted technological safety checks this time round on roads with limited traffic. We hope we will be able to verify (the vehicle’s safety) by conducting tests in areas with more traffic,” a Cabinet Office official said.