“safe driving-support technology will be further advanced, highly reliable, and intelligent”

Don’t grab the wheel

Japan gets ahead of international regulations on automated driving


April 2020 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair

Although it will still be a while before the elusive flying car takes to the skies, automated driving has arrived. Well, almost.

Only a few years ago, predictions were being made of millions of self-driving cars on the road by 2020. While fully autonomous vehicles are currently being tested, none are yet commercially available, despite previous pronouncements from manufacturers — including Toyota, Honda, and Tesla — that they were planning to have them on the market by this year.

Fully autonomous driving will require further advances in sensor technology, data recording and storage, cybersecurity, AI, and infrastructure, as well as regulatory and legal reforms. There will also be moral questions to address around the decisions taken by automated vehicles to protect the safety of passengers and pedestrians. If someone recklessly steps into the road, for example, should a car be programmed to brake suddenly enough to give four passengers whiplash, or worse injuries? And what if it’s a dog on the road? Also, if the same vehicles are to be sold and driven in different countries, there will need to be cross-border harmonisation of these issues, something Europe and Japan are currently working towards.

A six-stage autonomous driving scale created by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has become the industry standard. Level 0 is regular manual driving, which may include safety features such as automatic emergency braking and blind spot warnings. Level 1 provides either steering or braking support, plus lane centring or adaptive cruise control, while Level 2 includes all of those features. Level 3 is where the car can effectively drive itself under certain circumstances, such as on motorways set up for autonomous driving, and may include features such as automatic overtaking of slow-moving vehicles, but the human driver must take the controls when requested. Level 4 is fully automated driving within a limited area, and Level 5 is autonomous driving in all conditions, making a driver optional.

Japan is aiming for the introduction of Level 3 on expressways and Level 4 in restricted areas this summer, with Level 4 on expressways slated for 2025. To that end, necessary revisions to the Road Transport Act and the Road Traffic Act were passed last year and came into effect at the beginning of this month.

BMW and Nissan already have Level 2 vehicles on the road in Japan, while Honda is set to be the first domestic automaker to bring a Level 3 vehicle to market, with a new model of its flagship Legend set for release in the summer. Audi also has a Level 3-capable model on sale in its high-end A8, but as in other territories, its self-driving features can’t be fully deployed in Japan due to regulatory hurdles.

Overcoming regulatory and other compatibility issues is being driven by the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29), an organisation under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Japan is a signatory to the agreement, along with EU member states, Australia, Russia, and others — though not the US or China. However, Japan is getting ahead of WP.29.

“Although Japan is actively leading the discussions at WP.29, it is unlikely that all automated driving regulations will be agreed before the summer of 2020,” says Makoto Onodera of the Japan Automobile Importers Association (JAIA). “If Japanese regulations are introduced first, Japanese regulations should be harmonised after the WP.29 rules are agreed.”

Japan is cognisant of the importance of international harmonisation, according to Onodera, adding, “We assume that the EU thinks it should be discussed a bit more carefully.”

The European Business Council in Japan has called for the Japanese government to share information about regulatory developments “in a timely manner”, and to ensure “importers have the same opportunities as domestic OEMs [original equipment manufacturers]”.

The European automotive industry sinks a hefty €57.4 billion annually into research and development, accounting for 28% of all R&D in the EU. With a significant chunk of that now aimed at realising autonomous driving, the sector is understandably keen to avoid last-minute surprises that could render its technology incompatible with Japanese legislation or infrastructure.

Takeshi Sato, director of communications at BMW Japan, doesn’t see that being an issue.

“Level 4 regulations have not been discussed yet,” he states, “[but] Japan has no intention of establishing any unique requirements.”

Nevertheless, Sato concedes there is a possibility of countries interpreting the agreed standards differently, leading to less than full harmonisation.



One potential sticking point is how much of the huge quantities of data generated by autonomous vehicles will need to be recorded. Vehicles in BMW’s autonomous driving test fleet are currently collecting eight terabytes of data an hour, though this exceeds what a commercial autonomous car will need to gather, let alone store. However, it appears Japan’s National Police Agency is pushing for more information to be stored than would be required under the EU’s Event Data Recorder protocol.

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) is scheduled to run an autonomous driving demonstration in cooperation with all 10 of its automaker members from 6 to 12 July. Buses, cars, and other vehicles with autonomous capabilities between levels 2 and 4 will operate around Haneda Airport and on the expressway from the airport to the Odaiba district.

The demonstration, which had been scheduled as a showcase event before the now-postponed Olympics, will test some of the infrastructure needed to realise the next levels of autonomous vehicles. These include road-to-vehicle communication infrastructure to support the merging of expressways and ETC transit, distribution of signal information on general roads, maintenance of pedestrian signals, white lines, signs, and guardrails, according to JAMA.

The industry group is optimistic on harmonisation and sees, “no significant difference between Japan and Europe in autonomous driving technology”.

“Basically, we understand that safe driving-support technology will be further advanced, highly reliable, and intelligent on the vehicle side,” says a JAMA spokesperson, “and safety will be secured by combining with infrastructure-coordination technology.” 

“Japan has no intention of establishing any unique requirements”