Highway Platoons, Aging Populations, and Tokyo 2020: Japan’s Automated Vehicles

I recently completed a two-week trip to Japan, most of it as part of an urban design studio for my Georgia Tech master’s program. Our studio was tasked with a “Smart Cities” redevelopment plan for a small district in Tokyo on behalf of our client, a Japanese national research institution, and the project gave me an opportunity to study AVs in the Japanese context. Coincidentally, we were working mostly out of Tsukuba, where Japan conducted its first automated vehicle (AV) testing in 1977.

American AV-watchers should pay attention to policy developments in other countries, not just activity from foreign automakers and tech firms. Market demand for different AV applications and policy objectives in those countries may accelerate advancement of specific capabilities, which in turn may have crossover impacts in the US. For instance, German researchers have long had greater interest in self-parking features than Americans, given their concern with efficient use of more limited parking capacity. Also, while AV shuttle firms Navya (French), EasyMile (French), and their competitors have seen some traction in the United States, Europeans have been far more aggressive in using these vehicles as a means of testing shared mobility and introducing the public to self-driving technology.

Japan is an interesting case study because its automotive and technology firms are among the global leaders in AV development, but the country itself is unlikely to deploy that technology at the scale or speed of other advanced economies. KMPG recently ranked Japan 11th on its global AV readiness index, giving it high marks on infrastructure and innovation, but knocking it on poor consumer acceptance. Much of this skepticism derives from relatively low exposure of AV tech to the Japanese public, and resistance to TNCs (Uber in Japan is merely a taxi-hailing app).

The effective non-existence of TNCs makes it unlikely we’ll see any major deployment of AV fleets for private transportation services without a sea change in national policy. The heavily regulated taxicab industry will also prove a significant obstacle to any deployment of AVs beyond vans and shuttles that offer last-mile solutions. Recent moves to impose full liability on AV owners, barring proven software malfunction, will likely deter personal ownership as well.

Nonetheless, Japan’s big 3 automakers, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan all have ambitious plans in line with other OEMs to develop and deploy AV tech globally. Toyota announced in March that it and two Japanese suppliers would invest $2.8 billion in a new AV R&D spinoff. Nissan is pooling resources with existing partners Renault and Mitsubishi to develop its AV tech. Even Isuzu, which abandoned the US light vehicle market several years ago, is building out its AV program specifically for trucking applications in competition with Daimler, Tesla and others.

A Nissan test vehicle. Photo courtesy of Nissan.

Japan’s primary motivations for the deployment of automated vehicles are twofold:

  1. Improve road safety, primarily by reducing collisions involving elderly drivers.
  2. Improve trucking throughput by using platooning technology.

The nation’s road fatalities have steadily declined since the early 1990s, but not among the elderly, as more than 50% of road fatalities involve persons 65 and older. The National Police Agency, which governs urban road safety, sees both advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and fully automated shuttles providing last-mile solutions as means of reducing these collisions.

Japan has been testing intelligent transportation systems since the 1990s, with highway vehicle automation a primary use case to increase throughput, reduce congestion, and improve road safety. Much like the United States, the country faces a truck driver shortage and a rapidly greying workforce, with roughly 40% of the nation’s truck drivers aged 50 or older. Both Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) have been investing in highway automation as a means of achieving these objectives, notably through platooning capabilities. Per KPMG, Japan already has among the world’s most robust 4G and fiber networks, which will underpin the widespread deployment of roadside infrastructure to support these systems.

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Rationales for highway vehicle automation, per MLIT’s 2016 strategy white paper.

Other major AV use cases widely promoted in the US context are little-discussed, if not absent entirely. Reducing personal vehicle ownership is a non-factor in a country where parking is already expensive, and most families own only a single car for weekend/holiday recreational use. Urban congestion reduction is a dubious value proposition at best (evidence is now mostly pointing to the contrary), but in major Japanese cities where transit and non-motorized transportation rule, there is little need for that.

One final policy objective, albeit of short-term and lesser importance, is to provide a technology showcase for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Expect to see driverless shuttles throughout the city, as pilot programs backed by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank have already launched in Tokyo using Navya vehicles.

A Navya vehicle demonstration near Tokyo Tower. Photo courtesy of Bloomberg

Note that SoftBank has now invested well north of $10 billion in Uber, Ola, Lyft, Didi, Baidu and other firms globally in the ride hailing and AV industries, and may use the Olympics as a platform to generate excitement globally around self-driving tech. Japanese telecoms giant NTT DoCoMo has been testing 5G cellular service at the Tokyo Skytree tower (near our studio site), and the company plans its first commercial rollout in 2020, ahead of the Olympics.

Don’t expect to see large driverless fleets tested in Tokyo or Osaka anytime soon, but Japanese demand for last-mile transportation and highway vehicle automation should offer additional market incentives for development of those capabilities, particularly for Japanese automakers.

And expect a show in 2020.


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