On 4 January 2016, Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), revealed that the Japanese car giant is to open two artificial intelligence research facilities in the US to speed the development of its self-driving technology.

  • One lab, near Stanford University, will try to ‘teach’ cars to respond safely to unexpected events. 
  • The other, near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will explore ways that vehicles can ‘justify’ their actions. This could help identifying why a self-driving car has performed illogically. 

Natural caution

Although more cautious than some US and European rivals like Tesla – which already sells Model S cars with its ‘Autopilot’ software – Japan’s car makers are striving to perfect autonomous technology.

They are, however, running into the same regulatory issues that are hindering development in other countries, including the legal requirement that all cars on Japan’s roads must be controlled by a human driver.

Despite this, Toyota, Honda and Nissan have been allowed to test autonomous vehicles on Japan’s public highways – albeit with a driver ready to take control. 

Nissan expects to launch autonomous technology earlier than its competitors. They plans to install autonomous driving technology for a two-lane highway this year. By 2018 it expects to sell cars that can overtake and navigate lane-changes autonomously, and by 2020 plans to offer fully autonomous vehicles that can navigate urban streets. By contrast Honda and Toyota’s lane-changing tech will only go on sale in 2020. 

Fuelling innovation

To encourage the development of autonomous vehicles, the Japanese government last year published a four-phase timetable for the public roll-out of the technology.

Phase 1: the current situation, where cars are already allowed to automatically manage one of the three aspects of control – acceleration, steering and braking.

Phase 2: by next year, vehicles will be allowed to automatically manage two of these three aspects.

Phase 3: by 2020–25, cars will be permitted to manage all three aspects of control (but a driver must be ready to take control).

Phase 4: by 2025–30, vehicles will be allowed to automatically manage all three aspects of control without a driver on standby to take control.

An Olympic challenge

The timetable envisages level three autonomy in public use for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to show how far Japanese self-driving technology has advanced.

To help achieve this goal, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry have set up the Commission for the Business of Autonomous Driving, which will bring together industry experts and academics. 

Liability and insurance 

The government is also tackling the question of liability in accidents involving self-driving cars. The police aim to establish a working committee with legal advisers over this year . 

As for insurance, on 5 December 2015, Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance and Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance revealed their jointly developed cover for self-driving car tests. The policies are aimed at automakers, research institutions, parts suppliers, telecommunication firms and software companies.