A New Olympic Goal

Japan Unveils Its Strategy for Self-Driving Cars

On Monday, in a move that could offer a big boost to the commercialisation of autonomous driving, the Japanese government announced its intention to get a self-driving car service up and running on Tokyo’s public roads in time for the 2020 Olympic Games. As a reminder, the opening ceremony for the event is 24 July 2020, just over two years from now.

Moving what is a potentially hazardous service out of the labs and onto the streets of one of the busiest cities in the world is an incredibly ambitious undertaking, and demonstrates the global competitive atmosphere around emerging technologies. Just like with 5G, there are certain boasting rights in being first, or among the first, to roll out a sanctioned autonomous driving service. The eyes of the world will be on Japan during the Olympics, and achieving something that appears to be lifted out of the pages of science fiction will create a “wow” moment for the country.

Japan’s strategy was presented at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The government plans to begin testing a driverless car system on public roads sometime in 2018, and begin wide-scale commercialisation of autonomous driving as early as 2022, as a way to boost economic development and keep Japanese companies competitive in fields such as artificial intelligence. Many Japanese industries have lagged behind their Chinese and US counterparts in developing and implementing the past decade’s innovations.

Japan and its automotive industry are competing with the likes of Alphabet’s subsidiary, Waymo, and Uber, as well as US car-makers including Tesla. There’s no underestimating the complexities of scaling up with a large fleet of commercial autonomous vehicles. It’s an exceedingly arduous process that will, unfortunately, require learning from failures, including some high-profile cases, like those headline-grabbing incidents involving Uber and Tesla’s cars.

The Olympics may help accelerate short-term goals, but Japan has practical long-term motivations for getting safe self-driving cars on the road. Besides earning technical prowess, it has a strong economic incentive to do so, as the country is coping with an aging workforce and population. The government openly acknowledges its concerns about the ongoing demographic shift and the strains this will put on government services. It estimates that by the year 2050, 33 percent of its population will be 65 or older. That figure is currently 20 percent, compared with 14 percent in the US.

To support grand technology visions, governments often partner with private companies to ensure their country is in the game and economically competitive. From railroads to jets and computers, there’s often a national or regional aspect in development. The automotive sector is one of the world’s largest industries and it’s easy to understand Japan’s justification for government intervention in an area that appears to represent the future.

Although autonomous driving is gaining momentum, we caution that there’s a big difference between closely controlled, route-restricted self-driving services such as buses and “robo-taxis”, and widely available, privately owned autonomous cars. Waymo will launch a commercial ride-sharing service in Arizona later in 2018, and Baidu has plans to start production of a self-driving bus.

We have consistently indicated that the autonomous space will emerge first in tightly controlled environments. There remains a gulf between highly focused, capital-intensive projects for very specific uses and widespread availability of level 4 and 5 cars that are fully autonomous. The industry is picking up the pace, but it needs to keep its feet on the ground and avoid overpromising.

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