Safety and self-driving vehicles

The government wants to promote self-driving vehicles as a key feature of its strategy for economic growth. At a meeting last month of the government council on investing in the future, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed autonomous driving technology as “a major weapon for a productivity revolution” and ordered relevant ministries and agencies to accelerate work on regulations permitting self-driving cars. Road testing has already begun in Japan under tight conditions, and the government has an ambitious target of seeing road use of fully autonomous vehicles by 2025.

Two fatal accidents involving self-driving cars during road tests in the United States in March, however, placed a renewed focus on the safety of autonomous driving technology. Some companies, including Toyota Motor Corp., have suspended road tests for their self-driving cars in the U.S. The accidents serve as a reminder that popular use of autonomous vehicles must be based on a broad social consensus that they are a safe and convenient means of transport. To build such a consensus, further efforts must be made to improve the safety of self-driving hardware and software alike.

The intensifying global competition to develop self-driving vehicles has involved not just automakers but companies from the IT and electronics sectors. It is no longer a dream technology of the future, as testing is taking place on public roads and commercial use is envisioned only a few years away. Taking the lead in autonomous vehicles will be crucial for the future of Japan’s auto industry and, given its wide-reaching impact on related sectors, the nation’s economy as a whole.

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of making traffic safer and smoother. The technology is expected to reduce traffic accidents, a large number of which are attributed to driver error and carelessness, and cut back on traffic jams through the more smooth operation of autonomous vehicles.

There are expectations that self-driving technology will address problems stemming from Japan’s demographic woes. With the rapid aging of the population, large numbers of elderly motorists are giving up their license as they worry about their driving ability. In rural depopulated areas, reduced public transportation services creates a challenge for elderly residents. Autonomous vehicles could meet the daily transport needs of these senior citizens. Self-driving technology is also counted on as a solution to the increasingly acute shortage of drivers in the trucking industry. It makes a lot of sense for Japan to promote self-driving vehicles.

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