The rapid progress being made in autonomous driving technologies must be reflected by changes in the law — without delay, writes Katayama Osamu.
There are still many problems to be solved in commercializing self-driving cars. One of the issues is how to formulate the rules on autonomous driving.
SAE International, a global association of engineers and experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industries, has proposed five “Levels of Automation” for autonomous driving, and these have been adopted as the industry standard. In Levels 0 to 2, a human driver monitors the driving environment (0 = No Automation, 1 = Driver Assistance and 2 = Partial Automation). In Levels 3 to 5, the automated driving system monitors the driving environment, supporting Conditional (3) through High (4) to Full (5) Automation.
The current focus is the legal formulation related to the commercialization of Level 3 automation.
Last July, Audi of the Volkswagen Group in Germany was ahead of the world in unveiling the new A8 sedan, which is equipped with Level 3 technology and sent shockwaves through automobile manufacturers worldwide.
The current international treaties and the Japanese Road Traffic Act stipulate that cars must be operated by the driver, with an emphasis on the driver’s sovereignty. Accordingly, only Levels 0 to 2 are recognized by the current legal system.
This is not the case in Germany, however. Last June, the German parliament passed a bill to revise the Road Traffic Act to allow the driver to take their hands off the steering wheel while driving. That is, Germany is the only country in the world that recognizes Level 3 autonomous driving. This means that Germany backs autonomous driving as a national policy.
But although the German Road Traffic Act allows Level 3 driving, Audi is still not able to operate Level 3 self-driving cars because the legal formulation is not yet complete.
Currently, the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29), the intergovernmental conference of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Global Forum for Road Traffic Safety (WP.1), is discussing how to formulate common standards for safety and environmental regulations on self-driving cars.
The members of WP.29’s Autonomous Driving Expert Meeting are discussing the international standards for autonomous driving on public roads. The current rules only allow autonomous driving of 10 kilometers or less per hour, however. Unless this regulation is revised, it will not be possible to operate a Level 3 self-driving car on a public road.
That is, even in Germany, which is the only country in the world to have revised the Road Traffic Act to commercialize Level 3, unless the international standards for autonomous driving on public roads are eased, Level 3 autonomous driving on public roads is impossible.
What about Japan? The basic rules on driving cars are stipulated by the Road Traffic Act, which comes under the jurisdiction of the National Police Agency in Japan. The rules do not assume driverless driving and do not recognize Level 3 autonomous driving.
As a result, although Japanese car manufacturers have technically reached the level of commercialization, they have had to be careful about advertising Level 3. But if Japanese car manufacturers hesitate to commercialize autonomous driving for this reason, they will fall behind Western car manufacturers.
Toyota Motor Corporation plans to introduce the Level 3 “Highway Teammate,” which will make it possible to conduct autonomous merging, diverging and passing on highways, by 2020. In addition, Toyota also plans to commercialize the Level 4 “Urban Teammate,” which is also for use on standard roads, by the early 2020s.
Nissan Motor Corporation plans to introduce the autonomous driving technology of changing traffic lanes on a highway during 2018. This is practically Level 3. In addition, Nissan will launch autonomous driving functions including intersections on standard roads by 2020.
Honda Motor Co. announced that it would commercialize autonomous driving technology equal to Level 3 on highways by 2020, and that it would also aim to establish Level 4 technology for private cars by 2025.
It can be said that how to formulate the rules on autonomous driving is an imminent challenge.
Expectations for Autonomous Driving
Saikawa Hiroto, chairman of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Inc., said at a regular press conference of the Association on March 15, “It is essential to create an environment and formulate laws on autonomous driving. The government will soon draw up a basic outline of autonomous driving as part of its growth strategy. It was under the jurisdiction of multiple government organizations, but I hear that the government will take the initiative in handling the centralized administration of autonomous driving. We have great expectations for the government’s measures as members of the automobile circles. We will participate actively in the government’s actions as members of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Inc.”
The Japanese government will commercialize autonomous driving on highways and in some areas by 2020, when the Tokyo Olympic Games will be held. To achieve this, it is essential to formulate the rules that enable autonomous driving of Level 3 or higher, including complete autonomous driving, before 2020.
On April 17, the government drew up a basic outline on the direction for legal systems on autonomous driving as part of these measures. The government reviewed its policy about the related legal systems, simulating a situation in which self-driving cars and standard cars coexist on public roads in 2020 to 2025, the initial stage of high-level autonomous driving.
The core of the Japanese automobile insurance system is the Automobile Liability Security Law. In the case of automobile accidents involving human beings, Article 3 of the Automobile Liability Security Law stipulates that people who drive cars themselves must provide substantial protection to victims on the basis of the practical principle of absolute liability.
The point is that if the subject controlling the car shifts from the driver to the system beyond Level 3, are the people driving the cars liable for accidents or not, as stipulated in the conventional rules?
The basic outline of autonomous driving that was drawn up by the government says, “As stipulated in the conventional rules, people who drive cars are liable for the damage incurred as a result of accidents that occur during autonomous driving.” In addition, the basic outline also says, “It can be considered to be valid to handle the damage incurred as a result of accidents caused by hacking (a case in which car owners are not liable as the drivers) through the government’s indemnification business. The government is considering the introduction of the compulsory installation of data recording devices (event data recorder [EDR] and drive recorder, etc.) by 2020.”
It can be said that this means that for the direction for the rules, the current system that focuses on saving victims, which is a feature of the Japanese automobile insurance system, will be maintained for autonomous driving as well. This is highly significant in terms of eliminating the concerns of victims and drivers. In addition, it can be said that the government’s compensation for the damage caused by hacking with a focus on preventing manufacturers from being totally liable for accidents will work positively for manufacturers.
The question of criminal liability remains. The basic outline says, “In commercializing autonomous driving, it is important to clarify the expected roles and obligations on the part of many related subjects, such as drivers, users, in-car safety people, people who remote-monitor and operate cars and service providers, by traffic rules and legal systems related to transportation businesses. The government will consider criminal liability on the basis of these things.” In addition, the scope of considering private cars is up to Levels 2 and 3, and Level 4 and higher is not considered.
The basic outline will lead to the necessary legal formulation.
Let me look at the fact that accidents caused by self-driving cars, which people are concerned about, have occurred in rapid succession in the United States.
On March 18, a self-driving car of Uber Technologies hit and killed a woman who was crossing the street in Arizona. In addition, on March 23, Tesla’s Model X sport utility vehicle crashed against the central barrier while driving on a highway in California, causing the death of its driver. This accident happened while the “autopilot” driver support function was activated.
In response to this accident, the Arizona State government withdrew permission for Uber to test-drive self-driving cars in the state. The California State government also took the same measure. Toyota also announced its policy of ceasing to test-drive self-driving cars on public roads in the United States for some time. NVIDIA, which deals with onboard computers, also canceled its tests on public roads in the United States.
In Japan as well, test drives of self-driving cars are conducted on public roads according to some regulations. It has to be said that the automobile industry, which has focused on promoting autonomous driving, is facing a significant period of testing.
Needless to say, demonstration tests and the commercialization of self-driving cars involve so many fatal issues that they should be conducted carefully. If a serious accident occurs and people come to think that autonomous driving is not safe, there could be delays in developing autonomous driving. Such a situation must be avoided.
What is necessary now is not to incite a sense of crisis toward autonomous driving but to prompt an accurate understanding of the issues as well as to facilitate public understanding of the benefits of autonomous driving, such as the reduction of the number of traffic accidents and the easing of traffic congestion.
Japanese automobile manufacturers have a huge accumulation of technologies regarding car safety. By utilizing these advantages, the Japanese automobile industry must not stop the flows of innovations to win the global development competition of self-driving cars and continue to maintain its advantages.
It is necessary for Japan to review its legal systems immediately with a focus on the rapid progress of technologies related to autonomous driving. In addition, the United Nations plays a central role in formulating globally common standards for autonomous driving, and the government is required to participate actively in these global discussions.
Ahead of autonomous driving lies a mobility revolution that will bring change to daily mobility and logistics, solve social issues and achieve new lifestyles. Can Japan catch that wave? In order to take a step forward toward it, how to formulate the rules on autonomous driving is an imminent challenge.
Note: Translated by The Japan Journal, Ltd. The article first appeared in the Asahi shimbun’s “WEBRONZA” economics column on 12 May, 2018 under the title, “Jido unten no ruuru-seibi wa mattanashi no kadaida (Rewriting the Rules of the Road).” (Courtesy of the author.)
KATAYAMA Osamu is an economics journalist and representative of K-Office. He has published extensively, including Sumato kakumei de seicho suru Nihon keizai (Growing the Japanese Economy with the Smart Revolution), and Naze Za Puremiamu Morutsu ha uretsuzukeru noka? (Why does The Premium Malt’s beer sell so well?). Recent publications include Samsun kuraishisu (The Samsung Crisis).