One day in December, a self-driving bus in Gunma completed an 18-km run from Maebashi to Shibukawa and back, dropping fare-paying passengers off at designated stops and navigating public roads.

The driver, who got the bus humming with the push of a button, stayed behind the wheel but was hands-off most of the time, keeping intervention to a minimum. The bus, sporting an array of sensors and cameras, was limited to a maximum speed of around 30 kph.

The bus completed the circuit from Gunma University to Shibukawa Station in about an hour, twice a day for nine days, as part of a pilot program set up by the school, a local bus line, the Gunma Prefectural Government and NEC.

The aim: to achieve the government’s goal of getting driverless vehicles up and running on Japan’s roads by the end of the year.

The move underlines the fact that self-driving vehicles are no longer a vision for the distant future, but just around the corner. This year, in fact, will see dozens of demonstrations held as the nation’s top carmakers use Tokyo to showcase their grand plans to as many people as possible.

2020 is set to be a milestone for the new market, with about 80 self-driving vehicles to be shown off ahead of the Olympics.

“With the Tokyo Olympics showcasing automated vehicles, 2020 will unmistakably be the year that shines a spotlight on autonomous driving,” said Yoshitaka Tanaka, a partner and leader of the automotive sector at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting LLC in Tokyo. “Over the long run, it will also be the first year for the practical application phase of autonomous driving.”

The pilot program is being spearheaded by Gunma University’s Center for Research on Adoption of NextGen Transportation Systems (CRANTS), which is focusing more on rural, depopulated areas where a lack of public transportation is causing problems for the elderly.

“In depopulated areas inhabited mostly by the elderly, I often hear them complain about a lack of transportation. My dream is to solve that problem,” said Gunma University associate professor Takeki Ogitsu, the deputy director at CRANTS.

The industry divides automated driving into six levels. From levels zero to 2, people are doing the driving. From level 3 and up, drivers basically have no responsibility even if they are sitting in the driver’s seat.

CRANTS plans to skip level 3 and go directly to level 4 by putting a few unmanned vehicles on public roads this year. It is already in talks with multiple municipal governments and if it succeeds, it will become the first commercial operation in Japan to run an unmanned vehicle network on a public road, Ogitsu said.

It has already conducted 35 demonstrations since October 2016 — by far the most in Japan.

“Gunma University is the only one in Japan that has been issued a green license plate for buses, which allows passenger-carrying autonomous bus service for payment like normal bus operators,” Ogitsu said.

A number of other businesses are aiming to launch similar projects this year, and startup robot maker ZMP Inc. is one of them.

ZMP plans to introduce a level 3 autonomous electric bus service this year at Chubu Centrair International Airport.

ZMP is working with Centrair to launch the service, which will be unmanned, later this year. It would mark the first commercialization of a level 3 driving operation at a national airport, ZMP founder and CEO Hisashi Taniguchi said.

The startup also aims to hold an experiment, for demonstration purposes, of level 3 towing tractors at Narita and Kansai airports this year to ease the labor shortages they are facing, Taniguchi said.

Dozens of self-driving demonstration projects have been conducted across Japan since 2018 to provide transportation mainly for mobility-impaired seniors residing in depopulated areas.

These include Toyota’s e-Palette vehicles, which are scheduled to help transport athletes at the Olympic Village.

Japan’s biggest automaker is also offering rides in the TRI-P4, a level 4 test car based on the Lexus LS sedan, at Tokyo’s Odaiba waterfront district between July and September.

These projects are part of the government’s goal to introduce level 3 vehicles on expressways and level 4 mobility services in selected areas this year.

The Road Traffic Act has already been revised to pave the way for the launch of self-driving vehicles on public roads.

Other goals also include making level 4 driving on highways possible by 2025 and level 5 driving on all roads this decade.

But Tanaka of Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting said that level 5 will be tough to reach in the 2020s because there are so many measures to address beforehand, including the lack of communications capacity for storing the massive amounts of data needed for automation, the need for legal revisions to accommodate fully autonomous vehicles, and the question of whether self-driving technology will ever become safe enough to win over the public.

Despite the complexity of the issue, self-driving cars have much potential and could help solve long-standing social issues, one of which is reducing traffic accidents.

The government believes self-driving technology will be effective in drastically curbing fatal accidents because the overwhelming majority of them are caused by drivers who break the rules.

Japan aims to reduce annual traffic fatalities to 2,500 or below by the end of the year. The tally in 2018 was 3,532.

While traffic fatalities fell to the lowest on record in 2018, the share caused by drivers 75 or older is on the rise because many are caused when they mistakenly step on the accelerator instead of the brake.

For instance, Toyota says vehicles equipped with its advanced safety features have reduced accidents by 70 percent.

Autonomous vehicle services will also be seen as a boon to seniors amid a decline in bus services nationwide, especially in depopulated rural areas.

Amid Japan’s shrinking and graying population, nearly two-thirds of bus companies are losing money, according to government figures. This is prompting the government to push for introducing driverless mobility services in over 100 locations by 2030.

Self-driving vehicles may also be the answer to the nation’s labor shortage.

Autonomous technology is also expected to play a role in “truck platooning,” where multiple unmanned trucks follow a manned truck, forming a caravan. That could help resolve the driver shortage and improve fuel-efficiency at the same time. The government has held demonstrations on the Shin-Tomei Expressway and plans to commercialize the process as early as 2022.

This summer, Honda is expected to become the first domestic automaker to sell a level 3 car — a high-end Legend sedan that can drive itself at low speeds on expressways.

Toyota meanwhile plans to launch a car with level 2 “Highway Teammate” technology this year that can handle expressway driving, including merging, lane-changing, and negotiating junctions, says Katsuhiko Koganei, a manager at Toyota’s Global Relations Department.

At home, Toyota, Nissan and SoftBank are among a slew of companies trying to launch fully autonomous vehicles that can run on all roads, but the endeavor will not be easy.

Overseas, Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo launched the world’s first commercial self-driving taxi service in Phoenix in December 2018, with a human driver behind the wheel in case of emergency.

In contrast, Gunma University’s CRANTS is treading a slightly different path by working to make unmanned road transportation a reality sooner by limiting operation areas. So far no traffic accidents have occurred in its demonstrations, Ogitsu said.

“We are aiming to start operations initially in rather secluded, underpopulated areas and widen their practical application little by little,” he said, adding that the maximum speed might be be set at 20 kph or lower for level 4 operations.

“There are still some areas in Japan that want unmanned autonomous vehicles despite the low speed, and we will prioritize deploying the systems in those areas.”

 The six levels of automated driving

  • Level 0: Features limited to providing warnings and momentary assistance, such as automatic braking and blind spot warning.
  • Level 1: Steering or braking/acceleration support, with lane centering to keep the vehicle in its own lane or adaptive cruise control to maintain safe driving distance.
  • Level 2: Steering and braking/acceleration support, plus lane centering and adaptive cruise control at same time.
  • Level 3: Self-driving system handles basic driving but driver must take over when system requests.
  • Level 4: Vehicle can fully drive itself on certain roads and under certain conditions. Examples include driverless taxis and buses, vehicles without steering apparatus.
  • Level 5: Same as level 4 but vehicle operates under all conditions.

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