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Economy & Tech

Japan Gears Up for Autonomous Mobility as Companies Put Their Tech to the Test

As Japanese automakers and telecom giants speed up plans to launch autonomous mobility services, the government is moving to create new rules to ensure safety.

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A demonstration of self-driving bus NAVYA ARMA in Haneda Innovation City on September 18. (©Sankei by Yasushi Notomi)

Preparations to implement autonomous driving technology in mobility services have entered a new phase. A major driver of this expansion is progress in the development of Level 4 autonomous driving. Level 4 vehicles can execute all driving functions within specific parameters. Another catalyst is the establishment of fifth-generation (5G) mobile communication infrastructure. The pressing shortage of human resources has further heightened expectations for innovative services. To keep up with the expansion of autonomous mobility, the Japanese government has begun to establish regulatory frameworks.

Honda's Driverless Vehicle

In a press conference held on October 19, Honda Motor disclosed plans to introduce unmanned taxi services in central Tokyo by early 2026. Honda President Toshihiro Mibe underscored the vast potential of the upcoming service, stating, "Profitability is ample, and the potential is limitless."

Honda, General Motors (GM), and its subsidiary Cruise have engineered a self-driving vehicle featuring six passenger seats and notably, no driver's seat.

Press preview of Japan Mobility Show, featuring driverless EV taxi Cruise Origin, jointly developed by GM, Cruise, and Honda. On the left is President Toshihiro Mibe of Honda Motors. October 25 at Tokyo Big Sight. (©Sankei by Yukuto Hagihara)

Communication in Autonomous Vehicles

Advancements in autonomous driving have surpassed features like automatic braking or following the car in front on highways. They are almost at the stage where Level 4 technology can be deployed for mobility services.

The integration of telecommunication technologies, such as 5G, is crucial to autonomous driving technology. Their use in mobility presents an opportunity to highlight the advantages of next-generation communication infrastructure, including the upcoming 6G. Telecommunications advancements will likely play a key role in various business-to-business initiatives within the industry.

A demonstration of a small driverless EV bus on October 24 in Nagakute, Aichi Prefecture. (©Kyodo)

Initiatives by Japanese Companies

In 2016, SoftBank launched a subsidiary dedicated to advancing autonomous driving services. After experimenting with vehicles from a French manufacturer, the company introduced Level 2 autonomous buses in locations such as Sakai, Ibaraki Prefecture. Level 2 automation still requires a human driver on board. On November 22, the subsidiary began testing Level 4-compatible vehicles in Fukuoka.

KDDI Corporation is also involved in the self-driving industry but has not established a dedicated subsidiary. Instead, the company is focusing on delivering essential communication services for the industry. It collaborates with startups in areas like Tokyo's Nishi-Shinjuku and Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture to validate its technology.

On November 7, NTT Corporation announced its investment in the startup May Mobility based in the United States. It aims to provide services to local governments by integrating May Mobility's system into autonomous vehicles developed by companies like Toyota. The company is considering setting up a new subsidiary dedicated to autonomous driving technology.

An autonomous bus in central Gifu on November 25. (©Kyodo)

Safety and Regulations

In Japan, the amended Road Traffic Act went into effect in April, allowing Level 4 autonomy on public roads. During the second Meeting on Digital Administrative and Fiscal Reform on November 22, a decision was reached to form a committee addressing the legal challenges associated with autonomous driving. The shortage of human drivers, which has sparked discussions about potentially permitting ride-sharing services, has also contributed to the growing enthusiasm for autonomous mobility services.

However, Cruise faced a setback in October when its robotaxi was involved in a pedestrian collision in the US. Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt held a joint press conference with Honda's CEO Toshihiro Mibe later that month but resigned on November 19. 

Similarly, Japan's inaugural Level 4 autonomous bus service commenced in May in Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture but was suspended in October due to a bicycle collision. Looking ahead, ensuring comprehensive safety measures and garnering public understanding will be pivotal for widespread adoption.

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Authors: Reo Otsubo, Nobuhiro Imanaka

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