Editorials

Safety and self-driving vehicles

The government wants to promote self-driving vehicles as a key feature of its strategy for economic growth. At a meeting last month of the government council on investing in the future, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed autonomous driving technology as “a major weapon for a productivity revolution” and ordered relevant ministries and agencies to accelerate work on regulations permitting self-driving cars. Road testing has already begun in Japan under tight conditions, and the government has an ambitious target of seeing road use of fully autonomous vehicles by 2025.

Two fatal accidents involving self-driving cars during road tests in the United States in March, however, placed a renewed focus on the safety of autonomous driving technology. Some companies, including Toyota Motor Corp., have suspended road tests for their self-driving cars in the U.S. The accidents serve as a reminder that popular use of autonomous vehicles must be based on a broad social consensus that they are a safe and convenient means of transport. To build such a consensus, further efforts must be made to improve the safety of self-driving hardware and software alike.

The intensifying global competition to develop self-driving vehicles has involved not just automakers but companies from the IT and electronics sectors. It is no longer a dream technology of the future, as testing is taking place on public roads and commercial use is envisioned only a few years away. Taking the lead in autonomous vehicles will be crucial for the future of Japan’s auto industry and, given its wide-reaching impact on related sectors, the nation’s economy as a whole.

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of making traffic safer and smoother. The technology is expected to reduce traffic accidents, a large number of which are attributed to driver error and carelessness, and cut back on traffic jams through the more smooth operation of autonomous vehicles.

There are expectations that self-driving technology will address problems stemming from Japan’s demographic woes. With the rapid aging of the population, large numbers of elderly motorists are giving up their license as they worry about their driving ability. In rural depopulated areas, reduced public transportation services creates a challenge for elderly residents. Autonomous vehicles could meet the daily transport needs of these senior citizens. Self-driving technology is also counted on as a solution to the increasingly acute shortage of drivers in the trucking industry. It makes a lot of sense for Japan to promote self-driving vehicles.

Last month, the government compiled an outline of regulatory rules on issues related to putting self-driving vehicles on the road. On the civil responsibility for accidents involving such cars, the outline said the vehicle owners will pay damages out of their mandatory car insurance, but the government will cover damages involving accidents caused by vehicles whose self-driving system has been hacked. The criminal responsibility for accidents involving autonomous vehicles was left to further discussions among relevant government ministries. The government will separately draw up a guideline by this summer on the safety requirements for self-driving vehicles. Clarifying such rules will be needed for building a social consensus for their introduction.

The recent fatal accidents during testing in the U.S. may mark a setback in the effort to get these vehicles on the road.

On the evening of March 18, an Uber Technologies Inc. car operating in autonomous mode under the supervision of a safety driver struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.

On March 23, a Tesla Inc. electric car equipped with the firm’s Autopilot system, which can maintain speed, change lanes and self-park while drivers keep their hands on the wheel, crashed on a highway in California, killing the driver.

Tesla, which had another fatal crash involving a self-driving car in 2016, said the car in the March accident was operating on Autopilot. The accidents shook public confidence in the safety of self-driving technology and have prompted some companies to suspend road tests of their autonomous vehicles.

The fatal accidents in the U.S. underline the fact that public trust in the safety of autonomous driving technology will be crucial for the technology to move forward. Such setbacks must be overcome through greater efforts to refine and improve reliability of self-driving systems.