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Level-4 Self-Driving Cars to Hit Japanese Streets for the First Time

Level-4 self-driving cars are able to operate unmanned over established routes, making decisions and performing maneuvers even in emergencies.



Boldly's self-driving bus in Haneda Innovation City in Ota City, Tokyo on February 20. (© Sankei by Ayumi Asagami)

When the revised Road Traffic Act takes effect in April, Level 4 self-driving cars will be legal on Japanese roads. In certain areas, Level 4 automation will allow the self-driving system to take total control of the vehicle.

Competition is heating up among operators who envision unmanned transportation services for sparsely populated areas in Japan. 

Automated vehicles still face technological hurdles and profitability issues. Nonetheless, the technology is projected to support public transportation in areas where such services are difficult to maintain due to population decline.

Haneda Innovation City, situated in Ota City, is an advanced technology hub near Haneda Airport. It has a bus service on a circular route that uses self-driving buses from Boldly, a SoftBank subsidiary based in Minato City.

A driver is on board but does not operate the bus. It follows a pre-set route at 12-14 kph (7-9 mph) and automatically stops when it detects pedestrians ahead. A company representative is confident that the bus is ready to operate in Level 4 mode anytime.

Boldly's self-driving bus in Haneda Innovation City in Ota City, Tokyo on February 20. (© Sankei by Ayumi Asagami)

Level 4 Automation

There are five levels of automated driving. From Level 3 and up, the system monitors the environment in place of a human driver. But level 3 driving automation is conditional, as the driver takes over in an emergency.

Level 4 automation allows unmanned operation over established routes. The driving system makes decisions and performs maneuvers even in emergencies. This includes slowing down and pulling the vehicle over to the shoulder of the road.

Boldly's shuttle buses are currently operating at Level 2. But the company intends to apply to the Prefectural Public Safety Commission after April 1 to upgrade to Level 4.

However, the buses have technical hurdles including the inability to recognize multiple traffic signals simultaneously or drive around parked cars. As a result, obtaining a Level 4 permit will be difficult unless certain environmental conditions are met, such as no cars parked on the road and few pedestrians.

Although driverless vehicles are being tested in several locations, Eiheiji town in Fukui Prefecture is the only place in Japan with a Level 3 shuttle bus.

"Areas where Level 4 autonomous driving can be realized will be limited," explains Yoshitaka Tada. He is the director of the Automated Driving Strategy Office of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT). Profitability is also a concern for operators, so the MLIT plans to expand subsidy programs for municipalities looking to implement automated driving services.

self-driving cars
Boldly's self-driving car analyzes its surroundings using obstacle detection sensors. The car will stop if it detects a pedestrian in front of it. (© Sankei by Ayumi Asagami)

Automated Cars to Become Ubiquitous by 2030

According to Yuki Saji, president of Boldly, 2022 to 2030 will be a transitional period in which self-driving buses will become available throughout Japan. Moreover, he predicts a future in which "automated driving is the norm."

In fact, Osaka Metro is collaborating with NTT Docomo to provide Level 4 self-driving buses to transport visitors to the 2025 Osaka-Kansai Expo site.

Furthermore, TIER IV is a Nagoya-based developer of automated driving operating systems (OS). With an increasing number of clients each year, it has provided its operating system to hundreds of businesses worldwide. TIER IV system developer Yuki Iida believes Level 4 automation will "demonstrate that the automated driving market is starting to take off in Japan."


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Ayumi Asagami

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