Kanagawa: automated gateway to the 2020 Olympics?

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Designed and operated by British engineers and built by local Japanese workers, the first Japanese railway line connecting Tokyo’s Shinbashi Station to Yokohama in 1872 for me defines Kanagawa as a historic location for mechanized transportation and cutting-edge technology exchange. Back in the late 1990s, as part of a British Foreign Office-sponsored program, I applied to get assigned to Kanagawa to work in local government developing better international and technological cooperation between Japan and the UK. In the end I wasn’t assigned to Kanagawa, and instead to Miyazaki in Southern Japan, but since the opening of Japan and the Meiji era in the late 1800s, Kanagawa has acted as the gateway to foreign businesses, technology and influences. When trade was forced upon Japan with the early American-driven treaties, the port of Yokohama opened on what were inhospitable mud flats far from anywhere and from the existing fishing port that served the region. Yet the arrival of exotic, hard-to-find and otherwise rare products, plus a new railway in the works, boosted then cemented Yokohama’s status as the modern port to Japan’s new Eastern-capital: To-kyo.

Interestingly the concentration of foreign-owned or part-owned technology businesses in Kanagawa and especially the Yokohama and Bay region is still high. It was where I was to work in the early 2000s managing business process outsourcing and software development offshoring for large Japanese enterprise customers, and today again in the late 2010s developing automated driving solutions for the transportation industry at HERE. And it was where I helped bring over a data collection unit sitting idle in Taiwan, and rig it to the roofmount of a bright red Nissan X-Trail just outside the HERE office in Shin Yokohama. Cruising around first the Shin Yokohama streets and then Nissan HQ not too far away hoping not to get caught by the road police, the setup was to prove successful. Six months later we had collected a couple of thousand kilometers of high precision road data up and down the country. From Aomori in the North of Japan overlooking the bracing Tsugaru Straits, through Tokyo and down to the westernmost point of the main island of Japan at Shimonoseki looking over to the Southern island of Kyushu. When processed, this data could be transformed into the first standardized global maps to power autonomous and automated vehicle navigation in Japan.

As one of the largest automakers in the world and with headquarters in Kanagawa’s capital city Yokohama, it is not surprising that Nissan has been very active in the research and development, as well as testing, of automated vehicles on local roads. In September 2013 Nissan applied for an automated vehicle number plate for one of its electric Nissan Leaf vehicles, and started testing end November 2013 on the Sagami Expressway not too far away, trying out partial automation features such as lane changing, lane merging and so on. In June 2014, a Nissan automated vehicle participated in the opening parade of the new section of the Ken-O Expressway unveiling, and in 2015 then CEO Carlos Ghosn announced his automation plans up to the 2020 Olympics. Basic Level 2-like automated vehicles would be launched in 2016, highly automated vehicles would be launched in 2018 but limited to highway use cases, and vehicle automation on smaller city roads would be launched by 2020.

With the acceleration of the Google car development (later to be spun out into Waymo), the Japanese car industry was responding, yet many were incredulous at the announcement. True to form, both the Serena wagon (2016) and X-Trail SUV models (2017) have since been released, with the automated driving Nissan Propilot software now active in over 50,000 vehicles according to this August 2017 Nissan press piece. Heading towards the end 2017, that plan has served as a clear vision putting Nissan at the leading edge of the curve in Japan. Other carmakers have since made similar statements for 2020, 2025 and beyond as they ramp up, and Nissan’s pathway to the Olympics is probably the most advanced and aggressive to-date.

And it is not just Nissan. Tokyo Governor Koike has also been looking at using Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, based in Kanagawa and set halfway between Tokyo and Yokohama on the Bay, as a showcase for automated driving to overseas visitors landing in Japan for the 2020 Olympics. On March 11, 2017, the first sandbox working group was convened, with the goal to create a regulatory sandbox and accelerate automated driving experimentation in the Haneda Airport area. Although experimentation was due to start from April, setting up the regulatory sandbox processes is likely to take until Autumn 2017. The announcement of a regulatory one-stop-shop is a useful addition, as the current regulatory approval process in Japan is long, arduous, multi-faced, and overall confusing to say the least. From chairing a number of hearings at ITS Japan specifically on the topic inviting leading Japanese and non-Japanese companies involved in automated driving testing (such as Intel, Nissan and Daimler), they have all echoed similar concerns. Hopefully this initiative will finally help developers of new services understand quickly what is and is not regulated, as well as what bureaucracy needs to take place, so that they can get on with testing out cool services for users and not filling out forms. My personal view is that this regulatory signoff needs to be online and as automated as possible. Define the items, fill in the online form, attach any images or documentation plus expected route information, then hit send. Receive some ID in return, plug it into the code, and start driving. Something like a Verisign for automated vehicle testing. It’s a topic I’m hoping to research more at ITS Japan, considering the need for testing and regulatory signoff is happening across Japan and at an accelerating pace.

The Japanese IT giant DeNA has been another very active participant in Kanagawa automated driving testing, first teaming up with robotics company ZMP to create a joint venture in 2015 and develop automated “robotaxis”. Although at first they ferried ex-Prime Minister Koizumi’s son (Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet at the time) around the Yokohama stadium, they continued with a campaign to help ferry the aged in mobility-deprived rural areas. And they have actively supported a number of Ministry of Transport experiments across Japan that we’ve covered elsewhere, although these days they use French carmaker EasyMile’s shuttle buses as vehicle platform. Ditching ZMP they teamed up with Nissan in 2017, although it is unclear what exactly they are planning as it’s been rather quiet newswise on that front. In early 2017 DeNA separately teamed up with express mail delivery leader Yamato to create online shopping delivered by automated delivery vans called Roboneko. These automated deliveries will be tested in Kanagawa’s Fujisawa City over the course of April 2017 to end March 2018. So all you 4-day automated drive testing programs out there (you know who you are!), take a hint from this example… I can assure you the data won’t be collected in vain!

In summary, Kanagawa has been and will continue to be one of Japan’s prime hubs for technological advancement and experimentation. One can only hope that the automated drive regulatory sandbox will not be restricted to shuttling travellers between zone 1 (future airport hotel?) and the arrivals lounge, but rather be a replicable framework that eventually extends to the whole of Kanagawa and Central Tokyo. That way service developers, carmakers, operators, businesses and visitors will be able to fashion their own memories of the 2020 Olympics facilitated by Japanese automated mobility that is exciting, safe, easy to use and convenient. In other words, a very Japanese experience.