About a year ago in May 2016, Japan was showcasing its automated driving technology to the world at the Iseshima G7 Summit in Mie Prefecture. This was the first truly high-level showcase of its technologies since the Tokyo ITS World Congress in 2013, where sleek automated buses shuttled visitors around on predefined routes. It was also the last opportunity until 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics will be the real test of how far Japanese automated drive technology has come.
Especially versus aggressive and well-funded competition from China (where the government is heavily sponsoring the shift to electric vehicles), the US (where most carmakers are trying to turn into mobility companies) and Europe (where industry 4.0 is accelerating the speed of automotive innovation). As the exclusive automotive sponsor of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Toyota has a lot riding on the success of this showcase. Renault-Nissan and Honda all plan to launch models around the 2020 timeframe, plus Japan’s mapping industry also needs to prepare maps and software well ahead of that date, ideally by early 2018.
Considering the context and pressure, it is fair to say that while things went well at the G7 Summit it didn’t exactly blow away the competition away. For starters, it was always going to be difficult to get the German chancellor, US President and French Presidents to line up for a smiling photo op in a made-in-Japan branded car. But alongside Japanese Prime Minister Abe, the Italian Prime Minister and EU President were supportive and went along with the invitation. Second, the difficulties with the business model and delivery machinery to build mapping for automated vehicles – for a mere 250 meter section of roadway – were plain to see. Costing in the tens of millions of yen to build, while it may have been exceedingly safe and perfect, it was hard to see how this would scale within 24 months to cover the entire country (or at least its highways and main arterial roads). As automated vehicles rely on digital maps for safety in situations where sensors are unable to offer acceptable safety, unless Japan can scale this quickly, there will be no automation on Japanese roads.
After a number of attempts over the years, heavy pressure by the Japanese Abe government led the country’s mapmakers, surveyors and OEMs to band together in the form of the Dynamic Map Platform Co. Their plan: to commercialize automated driving mapping products to Japanese industry by 2018. Unfortunately the formats for this are likely to be locally-driven, simply due to the fact that the highly-compressed timeframe requires reliance on what is available today. However the car industry is highly motivated not to repeat the struggles of the 1990s, where there was one mapping standard for Japan, and another for overseas models. With a shrinking domestic population, booming sales overseas and heavy international competition, the industry cannot afford a repeat of the double-costing this model entails. To succeed will require working closely with overseas technology leaders in next-gen mapping like HERE Technologies, aligning that to their own domestic format, collecting data of all major roads in Japan, converting the raw data into globally-compatible formats, building the software to utilize that information, ensuring there is a reasonable form of update cycle, running automotive grade testing and validation, then integrating that into a competitive vehicle to wow visitors to the Olympics. And all this the next 24 months.
While this would be a tough even for a nimble IT company, this puts into perspective the scale of transformation facing the Japanese auto industry in the leadup to 2020. But testing is already afoot in the Mie area to meet this deadline for example with JTekt, a Japanese steering systems manufacturer, testing steering wheel handover from driver to vehicle in early July on their Mie test course in Iga City. Steering wheel handover is one of the fundamental human machine interactions for Level 3 vehicle automation, ensuring safe transitions in multiple scenarios. They plan to commercialize this technology for mass production by 2025, and thereafter supporting use cases where the steering wheel retracts into the dashboard. JTekt have been very active in the ITS Japan forums, especially supporting the Automated Driving Support Center Working Group that I chair at ITS Japan. But with non-Japanese rivals having already launched Level 3 vehicles such as Audi with their A8 model a couple of weeks ago in 2017, there seems to be a gap of 8 years that needs urgent acceleration. Put plainly, Japanese mass production of Level 3 and Level 4 systems needs to be brought forward into the first few years of the 2020s to remain competitive. Similar to the success of the Prius in the 2000s/2010s, whomever wins in the early 2020s wins the next decade.
And Japanese automakers are not standing still. Toyota recently announced plans to launch Level 4 automation in 2023, Honda is planning for full automation in 2025, and Nissan has launched its Serena Level 2 model last year in 2016. According to the latest government guidelines just updated in July 2017, Japan is planning for large-scale adoption of Level 3 automation in the first half of the 2020s. The remaining challenge: whether the Japanese auto and IT industry can together bring forward Japan’s readiness for Level 3 automation to 2020… The gauntlet has been laid down – is Japan ready for the challenge?