Public won’t trust driverless vehicles unless strong safety system is set up

Work is in full swing to draw up rules for transportation services with driverless, autonomous vehicles that will replace conventional buses and taxis.

Before such services can be rolled out, the government and service operators must establish legislation and a system to ensure safety, and gain the understanding of residents of areas where services are to be provided.

The government has set a goal of commercializing driverless transportation services around fiscal 2022 and introducing such services in more than 100 locations across the nation by 2030.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, the envisaged service will initially use a golf cart-like vehicle with several people on board, running at a low speed of about 10 kph. The system is expected to be introduced in restricted areas in underpopulated districts with little traffic and few intersections, spanning a few kilometers.

The number of bus users has decreased mainly in regional areas due to depopulation and other factors. Routes covering a total distance of about 13,000 kilometers have been discontinued over the past 10 years. The introduction of driverless vehicles in these areas would solve the issue of driver shortages and make it easier for the elderly to go shopping or to the hospital.

The question is how to ensure safe operation. An expert panel of the National Police Agency released a report this month outlining a framework of safety measures.

The report recommended the establishment of a system to examine the eligibility of operators in advance. It also stated that, in the event of an accident, it should be mandatory for personnel remotely monitoring the operation of the vehicles to report incidents to the police. Both of these requirements are essential for ensuring safety.

But no matter how strict the conditions are, it will be difficult to completely prevent accidents. There are still serious issues to be addressed, such as who will be responsible in the event of an accident, and how to establish a rescue system. The government must make safety a top priority and hold thorough discussions.

According to a survey conducted by a private research institute, nearly half of the respondents said they felt uneasy about the spread of autonomous vehicles. Many people were concerned about computer system malfunctions and where the responsibility lies in the event of an accident.

Such services will not become widespread if residents do not feel comfortable using them. It is important for the government and operators to carefully explain not only the advantages of driverless vehicles, but also the safety issues involved.

Automakers are developing driver assistance technologies to prevent accidents while developing driverless vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles developed by Toyota Motor Corp. will be used to provide transportation in the athletes’ village at this summer’s Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. A service using driverless vehicles started in Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture, in March. For ¥100, adults can travel along an about 2-kilometer route.

Cost is also an issue for the rollout of driverless transportation. The central and local governments must take such points into consideration during their planning for the commercialization of the technology.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 20, 2021.