Aichi as self-driving test hub

If you’ve travelled to Japan before, whether to visit Kyoto and Western Japan or to head out to Toyota City on business, the Shinkansen bullet train will inevitably take you through the city of Nagoya the capital of Aichi Prefecture. And while it is well known for Nagoya Castle and its broad-based automotive industry, Aichi is turning into something of a test bed for automated driving testing with 15 cities and towns across the prefecture signing up to allow tests on its open roads.

Already back in 2015, I met with prefectural officials and Nagoya University, to demo their latest automated driving prototypes. After travelling in circles in the pre-mapped car park, we head out onto the open roads at the designated slow speed. The automated drive itself was rather smooth, except for heading up the hill and where the road curved at the same time. Multiple times the car diverged slightly from the center lane, then slowly but surely towards the kerb. If the vehicle moved too close to the kerb, the steering wheel eventually yanked the car back into the lane, and the cycle started again. Probably some sensor noise/error leakage? As we slowly edged over the hill, and down to the red stop light at the bottom, the vehicle started slowing down but we soon realized not nearly fast enough to stop us hitting the vehicle waiting at the stop line. The driver hit the brakes pretty fast and the vehicle came to a juddering halt. No damage done as we were moving relatively slowly, but more work was necessary.

A year later the prefecture was announcing in 2016 that 15 local cities and towns, from Toyota City to Minami Chita, Ichinomiya to Kariya, were allowing automated driving tests on their roads. With the help of Aisan Technologies and a number of other local players, it seems that the prefecture has made the decision to involve as many local authorities as possible. To my knowledge, this is the first time such a comprehensive multi-city deal has been done in Japan. Today we know that total kilometers driven over the year amounted to 2,800km (ie 8km/day), but this collaboration between local authority, technology provider and hardware maker is exactly the kind of role model program that Japan has been waiting for – Aichi should be commended for making such a bold statement! And in case people still weren’t sure that Aichi means business, over 30 towns and cities have now raised their hand to participate in the follow-up round of testing this year meaning accelerated progress into 2018.

It will be interesting to see how quickly the automated driving technology matures over the next 12 months as we get closer to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. But beyond testing by individual companies, my two wishes for the future of this program are as follows:

  • That the program in future be structured as an innovation platform. Similarly to M-City in the US, where global industry experiments using a common infrastructure and set of rules, this program could be used by any company wanting to safely test automated driving technologies on Aichi roads.
  • Furthermore, this program could also be opened up to other Japanese prefectures as an operational framework. By documenting the rules, conditions, organizational principles, lessons learnt and IT systems used in the Aichi program, other prefectures could then copy/paste the framework to ramp up experimentation quickly on their own local roads, for the benefit of the local population and industry.