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Japan's carmakers proceed with caution on self-driving cars

The technology in use is virtually identical: cameras, radar, and GPS working together to turn cars into self-driving machines.

[TOKYO] The technology in use is virtually identical: cameras, radar, and GPS working together to turn cars into self-driving machines. What separates Japan's automakers and companies like Google Inc and Tesla Motors Inc is when they predict fully autonomous vehicles will be ready.

At this week's Tokyo Motor Show, Nissan Motor Co will display a concept car with retractable steering wheel and message-flashing windshield, joining Honda Motor Co and Toyota Motor Corp in exhibiting vehicles with autonomous modes for changing lanes and avoiding collisions on highways. But while Tesla deployed its Autopilot system this month and Google aims to have fully self-driving cars on the road by 2020, Japan's automakers see a wait for such vehicles, with introductions coming only after 2025.

The unwillingness to take a software-testing approach - with beta versions used for trial periods and ongoing updates - and apply this to car-making divides traditional auto companies and tech-industry challengers, said Tatsuo Yoshida, an auto industry analyst with Barclays Plc. Whereas Tesla beamed Autopilot into Model S sedans with the promise the system would continually learn and improve itself, Japan's automakers view such an approach as putting features on the road before they're ready. They're also wary of exposure to liability if they introduce safety features that fail.

"In the auto industry, a beta version that's not 100 per cent complete is not acceptable," Mr Yoshida said by phone. "They may miss the opportunities for the future, but at the same time, traditional, established car companies have to maintain some level of integrity or practicality in the real world." Called IDS, short for Intelligent Driving Solution, Nissan's electric hatchback concept uses a manual setting to teach driving preferences to the car's computer, which replicates those actions in autonomous mode.  Honda meanwhile is showcasing technology that allows its cars to auto-cruise on congested roads under 65 kilometers per hour, and trace lines on curvy roads over 100 kilometers per hour. Its cars are capable of recognizing their position down to a few centimeters and determining best routes and self- controlling the wheels and speed.

Toyota put reporters through test drives this month in a modified Lexus GX sedan that can enter public Tokyo expressways, switch lanes and self-steer onto exit ramps, all while deciding on the spots to slow down or accelerate based on surrounding traffic. The car indicates on its center instrument panel screen and plays an audio message when it wants the driver to take over, and returning to manual mode requires only a grab of the wheel or tap on the brakes.

Each of Japan's three biggest automakers have set targets to start deploying the technology around 2020. Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk told reporters this month the company can probably develop a completely self-driving car in about three years, while Google has forecast about a five-year time frame.

To be sure, Tesla rolled out its Autopilot system with the disclaimer that drivers ought to keep their hands on the wheel. Fully autonomous vehicles likely will require additional sensors and 360-degree cameras - Autopilot only has forward radar and camera. Regulatory changes addressing liability issues would also need to be brought up to speed.

Japan is aiming to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to showcase its autonomous driving technology credentials. The government is encouraging carmakers and technology firms to test self-driving vehicles on designated public roads and may allow Olympians to take robot taxis to venues.

Self-driving cars have a special resonance for Japan because of its aging population. With life expectancy rising and births declining, the proportion of Japanese aged 65 or older will swell to 40 per cent by 2060 from 24 per cent last year, according to government projections.

Traffic accidents involving the elderly are on the rise in Japan, contributing to the industry falling short of meeting a target for fewer than 2,500 road fatalities a year by 2018 set by the National Security Agency. That is even though traffic- related deaths have declined for a 14th straight year to 4,113 fatalities last year. About 30 per cent of vehicles sold in the country now are equipped with driver-assistance features such as collision avoidance.

"We believe automated driving technology can greatly contribute to reducing on-road accident and ease congestion," Fumihiko Ike, head of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and Honda chairman, said in a briefing on the car show this week. "By integrating automated driving technology with small-scale transport, Japan can overcome the challenges of having to establish full-scaled public transportation in thinly populated rural areas."