Japan’s 1st Level 4 Autonomous Driving Service Starts in Fukui

Jiji Press
Tourists ride in a Level 4 autonomous vehicle in Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture, on Sunday.

EIHEIJI, Fukui (Jiji Press) — Japan’s first transportation service based on so-called Level 4 autonomous driving, or fully automated driving under certain conditions, started in the town of Eiheiji in Fukui Prefecture on Sunday.

Such a service is expected to become a new means of transportation in regions facing population falls.

In Eiheiji, where Level 4 autonomous driving was approved for the first time in the country, a seven-seat electric cart developed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and others runs on a section of about 2 kilometers of a walking trail. There is no operator in the car, and one person in charge of remote monitoring manages up to three electric carts.

“The ride was comfortable and the cart properly slowed down when it passed by people,” Kazumi Kawamatsu, 57, from Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, said. “I want to ride [a Level 4 car] again when similar services become available in residential and other areas.”

In Eiheiji, demonstration tests of autonomous driving started in 2018, and a service with Level 3 autonomy, under which humans take over driving operations in emergencies, started in 2021.

In March this year, the transport ministry approved the use of Level 4 vehicles by the Eiheiji town government. With enforcement of a revised road traffic law in April, the ban on such cars’ operations on public roads was lifted. On May 11, Zen Connect, a public-private company in Eiheiji that has been commissioned by the town government to operate the Level 4 vehicles, obtained a license for their operations under the revised law.

Self-driving cars are expected to serve as a means of transportation for elderly people in areas where public transportation services have decreased due to a shortage of drivers and depopulation. An official of the town said, “We will consider introducing the system if there is a road environment suitable for autonomous driving and if there are areas where residents are seeking such a service.”

Meanwhile, a transport ministry official said, “We need to establish technologies to ensure safe driving even in crowded traffic environments, create an environment that makes it easier for self-driving vehicles to operate, and appropriately convey safety-related information to residents with concerns.”

By 2025, the government aims to expand autonomous driving transportation services to about 50 locations in the country.