In the wake of Tesla’s release of Autopilot beta, and with tech companies like Google, Apple, and Uber making inroads into the car business, Japan Inc. has set itself a goal.

Japan wants to lead the world in automated driving with an objective of fully capable hands-free highway legal autonomous driving cars by 2020.

“The Japanese government wants to be number one,” said Fumihiko Ike, chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, to a gathering of reporters. “That’s why they gave us a target of 2020 to showcase this technology.”

Japan’s 2020 timeline also coincides with that of Google, the best-known tech company moving into a market formerly owned by car companies.

According to Automotive News – as is the case also with hydrogen fuel cell tech – the Japanese carmakers are getting help with the push toward automated driving by their government.

Japan is ahead of others in vehicle-to-infrastructure network investments which can facilitate vehicles’ knowing about traffic jams, lane closures, and pedestrians who might be at risk even.

SEE ALSO: Seven Things You Need To Know About Tesla Autopilot

Not incidentally, it’s reported the Japanese are wanting to time the source of national pride with the 2020 Summer Olympics. References have been made envisioning athletes conspicuously being shuttled to the games in autonomous vehicles, and this adds to the industry’s motivation.

Tesla has launched its Autopilot, but the Japanese say they will hold back release of their own systems and refine true hands-free driving.

Tesla has launched its Autopilot, but the Japanese say they will hold back release of their own systems and refine true hands-free driving.

Last week at the Tokyo Motor Show the biggest Japanese carmakers – Honda, Toyota and Nissan – showcased their autonomous tech.
Japanese executives have made comments both subtly snubbing Tesla, in the case of Toyota, and Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn commented on Google and others.

“The tech companies will take as much space as we are ready to abandon,” Ghosn told Automotive News referring to Google, Apple, and Uber. “If we leave ground uncovered, if we are slow in developing autonomous cars, neglecting connected cars, well, guess what? We’re going to be calling for more competition coming from outside the industry.”

But unlike Tesla, which says it embraces competition, the Japanese are not as ready to concede outsiders taking over.

A voice of caution was also uttered by what some, including Google are doing with cars with no steering wheel.

Mitsuhisa Kato, Toyota’s executive vice president for R&D for one spoke about Toyota’s proprietary Mobility Team autonomous technology. It requires the driver to drive the first and last few miles.

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“This is based on mutual help or assistance between vehicles and drivers, with both having a hand on the same steering wheel,” Kato said. “In a way, we are trying to tell Google this is the reality of the world we are still living in.”

Google however showed last year a pod with no steering wheel which the Japanese view at this stage as a fantasy, not a realistic vision ready to dovetail into the existing world.


“For that to happen, cars must change, the infrastructure must change, people must accept the concept, and there must be new rules that enable such vehicles,” said Kato.

And for now, perhaps the most adventurous is Tesla which has released a system that is learning, evolving, and in beta stage. Autopilot does require the driver stay attentive, with hand on the wheel.

What the Japanese aspire to release when they deem it tested and with less liability is hands-free highway driving. Last week such systems were being demonstrated including one from Toyota which navigated a Lexus GS through thick rush-hour highway traffic crawling through Tokyo.

It was hands free, and no crashes were reported, but the Japanese say they wish to continue developing these systems as they press toward their goal.

Automotive News (subscription)