Automated Driving in the Regions

I believe that in ten years’ time, by 2027, automated driving will be the norm. The seething metropolises of Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi and Lagos will be developing the mobility ecosystems of the future. Yet Japan faces rapidly aging population, continued population migration from rural areas to the cities, and dwindling local tax revenues. For that reason, I believe that the benefits of automated driving will be felt most acutely not in the big city but in rural areas where mobility options are, and will remain, limited. In other words, as in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the automated driving revolution will come from the Regions not the Metropolis.

Having lived in Japan since the late 1990s when the mobile phone revolution brought seamless connectivity and useful multimedia apps to the whole of Japan, it often felt that I was living in the future with humans becoming increasingly enhanced via this digital capability. Explaining this to friends and colleagues back in Europe, at the time I was often met with incredulity or indifference regardless of the success of Nokia. Nearly a decade after the arrival of the iPhone, the rest of the world has caught up with that future. Today no-one bats an eyelid when on the London Underground, or indeed in remote villages around the world, many of us communicate with our screens for info while doing something else. What was once unimaginable science fiction has become a mundane reality.

And today history is repeating itself. This time with automated driving. After speaking at dozens of conferences across Japan and the Asia-Pacific region, what fascinates me beyond the cool technology and implementations is the positive impact to society that can enhance people’s lives. Japan is currently struggling with accelerated aging, dwindling tax revenues, and continued population migration from the regions to Tokyo and other major cities. Automation is one lever among many to both reboot the industrial landscape and maintain quality of life and services while meeting the lower tax revenues available. This is where Japan can offer us a glimpse of automated mobility in the late 2020s.

To learn more, since 2016 I have started exploring current automated driving efforts by Japanese companies and government in Japan’s Regions outside the Tokyo metropolis. Over the next weeks and months, I will cover how the Regions of Japan are coping with this momentous change and experimenting with automation technology. These changes will help shape local communities and Japan’s industrial landscape for decades to come. And hopefully they can provide hints both inside and outside Japan for broader experimentation, innovation, and mass market deployment. Although it may generate some incredulity and indifference at first, eventually I hope it will make our future mundane realities just that little bit easier.