Automated Vehicles for Delivery Services may Run on Public Roads within FY21

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A Japan Post unmanned autonomous delivery vehicle runs on a public road in a test run in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, in October.

Automated vehicles might be making deliveries on public roads within fiscal 2021 at the earliest, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned. The government is making efforts to respond to growing demand for noncontact delivery services amid the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The move is also aimed at supporting the logistics industry, which has been suffering from labor shortages, according to government sources.

Bills to revise related laws, such as the Road Traffic Law and Road Transport Vehicle Law, will be submitted to the current Diet session at the earliest. As current laws do not cover situations involving such automated vehicles, revisions would make it possible for them to travel on public roads.

To prevent accidents with other vehicles and pedestrians, revisions would include regulations regarding the size of the machines as well as determining traveling speeds. Current discussions on the maximum payload an automated vehicle could transport are in the range of about a few dozen kilograms, according to sources, and speed limitations between 4 to 6 kph — about the same as walking speed — are being considered.

Automated delivery vehicles are developed in much the same way as self-driving cars. By implementing cameras and imaging platforms in combination with global positioning system location information, they are able to react accordingly to traffic lights and avoid obstacles. Furthermore, these vehicles will be remotely monitored by operators and other personnel to ensure safety.

In demonstration tests thus far, no major safety problems have occurred, and if these vehicles travel at walking speed, accidents will be unlikely, according to a Cabinet Office official. The government is also looking into whether it would be useful to set up a system in which the vehicles emit a sound or an automated voice message to let people know about their presence.

In late 2020, insurance covering demonstrations of automated delivery vehicles involved in accidents and other occasions was made available on the market.

Test runs have been conducted on public roads by Japan Post Co., Rakuten Inc. and other entities. The government plans to give approval to each company when automated vehicle deliveries become permitted. Area limitations will not be set, so operators will be able to offer services nationwide.

When in place, automated vehicle deliveries will be possible to homes and offices. Products are to include food from eateries and supermarkets and services will include being able to collect and send items at the same time.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, automated services have become more widespread in countries such as the United States and China.

However, it is not clear if there is enough demand from consumers in Japan. Establishing a system to monitor automated delivery to ensure safety immediately after introducing such service will also be necessary. Whether many companies will actively participate will hold the key to success.

With the expansion of internet commerce, parcel deliveries in fiscal 2019 skyrocketed to a record high. However, the transportation industry is currently suffering from a labor shortage, according to a survey by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry. In addition, the working population is graying and the percentage of women employed in the industry is low.

The government aims to resolve such issues by introducing automated delivery vehicles as well as delivery services using drones, the sources said.