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Japan's Police Agency to Allow Testing of Self-driving Cars on Public Roadways

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【Summary】The NPA’s draft guidelines targets mature automakers and research institutes that have already accumulated a substantial amount of experience on closed tracks. From an international perspective, Japan’s renewed stance on the public testing of autonomous cars may attract developers from other countries.

Michael Cheng    Apr 17, 2017 6:15 AM PT
Japan's Police Agency to Allow Testing of Self-driving Cars on Public Roadways

The secondary phase of developing driverless technology for commercial vehicles, which involves testing on closed tracks, is severely limited. Simulations are often held in controlled environments, such as parking lots and abandoned spaces, making them unfit for live applications on public roads. 

Businesses have expressed their frustration about the boundaries of such pilot programs, set by policy makers and transportation authorities. In Japan, the limitations of driverless car testing are finally coming down, thanks to new regulations released by the National Police Agency (NPA). The group announced earlier this week that it plans to allow developers to test autonomous vehicles on public roads – without humans behind the wheel.

If all goes according to plan, Japanese developers (with approval and licensing from the NPA) may see their driverless vehicles on public roads this summer.

"Once the rules are made official, companies and research institutes will be able to test their cars in real traffic situations, which would likely speed up their development work and help them amass knowledge more quickly," said Shotaro Tani from Nikkei Asian Review.

Draft Guidelines and Licensing

This milestone comes with a myriad of strict regulations. First, the vehicles must be remote-controlled by humans. Both manufacturers and teams controlling the cars will be held responsible for any accidents that occur involving the autonomous vessels. Humans controlling the vehicles will bear responsibility for operational errors, while manufacturers will hold responsibility for defects related to the self-driving platform.

Moreover, the location of the pilot programs must be in a place with reliable access to wireless infrastructure. The actual testing also cannot be conducted during rush hour, to ensure minimal disruption. For public awareness, developers are required to install large signs on the front and back of the vehicles. Testers should also inform the community about the tests, prior to deployment.

The NPA's draft guidelines targets mature automakers and research institutes that have already accumulated a substantial amount of experience on closed tracks. In fact, this is a salient prerequisite set by the organization. Startups that are new to the emerging industry will have a very difficult time acquiring approval and licensing from the NPA. But even with a license, which is only valid for six months, there is a possibility that the local community (where the public pilot program will take place) could reject the proposal.

2020 and Beyond

Japan wants to rapidly streamline the development of driverless vehicles for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The country also intends to release fully autonomous cars without human drivers (SAE-L5) to commercial markets by 2025.

"The development of automated driving could help the elderly secure a means of transportation, slash the number of traffic accidents and ease traffic congestion," said an agency official.

From an international perspective, Japan's renewed stance on the public testing of autonomous cars may attract developers from other countries. The ability to conduct pilot programs in live environments is a huge advantage for companies that are racing to release driverless vessels and want to reassure consumers, as well as investors, about the safety of their platform.

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