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Japan’s Olympic dream: driverless cars on the road for 2020

Will the Tokyo traffic soon include driverless cars? (Photo: Owen Price/iStock)

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Japan’s leaders say they are confident we will see self-driving cars ferrying people around Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. But should we believe the headlines and the hype?

When Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics – just 19 years after World War II ended in catastrophe for Japan – nothing symbolized the country’s astonishing revival more than its slick new mode of travel: the high-speed Shinkansen, or bullet train. 

Fast forward more than half a century and Tokyo will once again host the Olympic (and Paralympic) Games in 2020. For a second time, Japan hopes to amaze the world with a glimpse of future travel. But this time the focus won’t be on trains, but cars - super-safe, state-of-the-art, self-driving cars.

“I can tell you that in 2020 Tokyo, self-driving cars will be running around, and you will be able to use them to move around,” Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confidently told a science and technology conference in Kyoto in October last year.

“The pace of innovation has never been faster,” added Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan Motor Co, at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show a few weeks later. “Nissan will be ready with [autonomous] vehicles capable of highway and city navigation by 2020.”

Fleet of robot taxis being developed

Mr Ghosn was speaking at the unveiling of the Nissan IDS Concept, a sleek electric vehicle with two operating modes: manual or autonomous. The car has a futuristic steering wheel that tucks away and is replaced by a large touch screen when its driver switches to autopilot.

Toyota and Honda also used the Tokyo Motor Show to signal their intent of having autonomous cars on highways (but perhaps not city streets) in time for the Olympics. Toyota showcased its Highway Teammate prototype based on a modified Lexus GS; Honda introduced its quirky, compact two-seater Wander Stand.

The Honda Wander Stand: a glimpse into the future. (Photo:Honda)

Meanwhile, Tokyo-based Robot Taxis - a joint venture between a robotics firm and a mobile internet pioneer - has said it hopes to develop a fleet of thousands of driverless vehicles in time for Tokyo 2020.

Japanese conglomerate Hitachi has thrown its hat into the ring saying it wants to become the leading producer of comprehensive self-driving systems for midsize automakers. Just this week, the company announced that it will start testing an autonomous driving system on public roads in the Ibaraki Prefecture.

And huge sums are being plowed into research. A multimillion dollar research center, the National Innovation Complex, opened at Nagoya University last year. One of its key projects is to develop self-driving car technology. Separately, Toyota has committed USD 1 billion over the next five years to establish the Toyota Research Institute in California, which will focus on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

Prime Minister Abe goes for a spin

All this is music to the ears of sports fans anticipating a trip of a lifetime to Tokyo 2020. And it is good news, too, for the many thousands of elderly and disabled Japanese whose lives could be radically transformed by autonomous motoring.

The positive approach adopted by Prime Minister Abe offers further encouragement. His government has been relatively quick to invest in vehicle-to-infrastructure communication networks. Mr Abe himself completed several high-profile, confidence-boosting test drives in autonomous cars back in 2013.

The IDS car showcases how Nissan envisions driverless mobility. (Photo: Nissan)

But there is a danger here that all the headlines and hype may obscure the huge amounts of work still to be done if Japan is to realize its 2020 vision.

Japan remains a world leader in science and technology, its people as famously tech-savvy as ever. It is also, without question, one of the key markets for autonomous driving. But the boom years of the 1960s are long gone. The country has been dipping in and out of recession for years. And Japanese companies are facing stiff competition from overseas rivals, with a recent report by analyst firm Juniper Research ranking the top five players in the driverless sector today as Google, Volvo, Daimler, Tesla, and Apple.

Then of course there is the long list of obstacles that any country (never mind one with a looming Olympics deadline) must overcome before autonomous motoring can go mainstream. There remains, for example, the unanswered question of who will be liable when a self-driving car crashes. Super-fast broadband services will have to be put in place to support connected cars. Lawmakers need to be persuaded to change legislation that currently makes it illegal for motorists to hand over control of their vehicles to computers.

Japanese automakers playing catchup

So can we really expect to see athletes and tourists being chauffeured around in driverless cars at Tokyo 2020, just four short years from now? Or are Japan’s leaders allowing themselves to be swept up in a pipe dream?

Tokyo-based science and technology writer Tim Hornyak sounds a note of caution. “While Japan is using the 2020 Olympics as impetus to promote self-driving cars, Japanese automakers are playing catchup with foreign rivals and tech companies,” he told 2025AD. “So self-driving cars are unlikely to be on Japanese roads in significant numbers by 2025.”

Toyota is already testing its Highway Teammate on Japanese roads. (Photo: Toyota)

Nevertheless, the Japanese have form when it comes to making surprising technological breakthroughs. They astonished the world with the Shinkansen five decades ago. Who’s to say they can’t do it again in 2020?

“Japanese industry failed to globally scale its high-tech expertise in areas like smartphones, home robots and drone technology,” Tim Honryak added. “But Toyota is belatedly ploughing $1 billion into AI research to stay in the game. They've recruited some top talent. So this gamble may pay off."

Can Japan make its 2020 Olympic dream a reality? Join the debate and let us know in the comments below.

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