Japan Road Tests self-driving Cars to keep aging motorists mobile

The goal is to give a growing number of the nation’s elderly a way to stay behind the wheel

It has been a decade since the train stopped running in a sleepy town at the tip of Japan’s Noto Peninsula, and bus routes have dwindled. The trend limits mobility options for the city’s dwindling rural population of 15000, nearly half older than 65.

However, Suzu city officials and researchers may have a solution: vehicles that drive themselves.

For months, a white, self-driving Toyota Prius has been zipping along the city’s winding seaside roads. The test car attracts plenty of attention from the community. A bulky spinning sensor mounted to the roof helps the vehicle make critical decisions instead of relying on a researcher from Kanazawa University who is sitting in the driver’s seat.

The societal challenges that come with Suzu’s graying population are common throughout Japan, which leads the world in aging, with one in four people older than 65, compared with 15 % in the U.S. and 8 % world-wide. The trend is particularly prominent in the countryside, where the young often flee to big cities.

Japan’s car companies, long an engine of the national economy, are looking to tackle the problem of older drivers.

“In the countryside, there aren’t easy public transportation options,” said Ken Koibuchi, who leads a team of about 100 people at Toyota Motor Corp. in Japan working on autonomous vehicles. “The local governments struggle to find a good solution, but if the technology works, it will allow” older people to stay behind the wheel longer, he said.

Driverless cars have been researched for decades, but global auto makers recently have ratcheted up efforts as new technologies have emerged and non-traditional players, including Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, and Tesla Motors Inc. have charged forward.

To date, autonomous vehicles largely have been billed as a way to make roads safer and the lives of multi-tasking drivers more convenient.

Japan is in the race, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government allocating about JPY 2 billion (USD 16.3 million) a year to develop maps and other technologies necessary for automated driving so that by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics, Japan could offer robot vehicles to transport visitors and athletes to and from venues.

That government backing, says Nissan Motor Co. NSANY 0.90% and Renault SA Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn, could smooth regulatory challenges and allow Japan to be first to market with autonomous cars. Like Toyota, offering aging drivers more independence is paramount for Nissan.

“We have an issue because Japan is an aging society,” said Kazuhiro Doi, Renault-Nissan’s research chief. “One of the requests of the government is to make us safer with autonomous cars.”

By offering safety and independence, self-driving features could increase sales if older consumers stay behind the wheel longer and continue to buy vehicles.

Auto sales in Japan peaked in the 1990s and generally have been decreasing during the last decade. An uptick in recent years was fuelled by tax incentives. As the nation’s population declines, however, the world’s third-largest auto market is declining as well.

“It’s difficult for us to live without our cars,” said Hiroyuki Shin, a 78-year-old who runs a parking lot that includes shops selling local specialties in Suzu.

“Some elderly people in my neighborhood have been told not to drive or have had their cars taken away by their younger family members. If autonomous driving technology is introduced, maybe people like them can continue driving.”

The self-driving Prius cruising around Suzu is a prototype developed by Japan’s Kanazawa University. Many people in their 80s, and some even in their 90s, still drive in Suzu, said city official Naoyuki Kaneda. “But the driving of the elderly could be unstable and unsafe.”

A driverless Toyota Prius has been navigating Suzu’s winding seaside roads

The aged in Japan are vulnerable to becoming both perpetrators and victims of traffic accidents. In Japan, drivers 65 and older accounted for about a quarter of traffic deaths in 2014, compared with about 15 % in the U.S. The elderly also are the biggest victims of traffic accidents in Japan—53 % of people killed in accidents were 65 or older.

Ultimately, autonomous technology could be used in taxis or buses, Mr. Kaneda said.

Testing these vehicles, however, is in formative stages and years away from implementation. Researchers and auto makers must address the high cost of the equipment—radar, cameras and laser-range finders, as well as powerful computer processors—which can add tens of thousands of dollars to these vehicles. They also are working to fine-tune the vehicles’ ability to operate in bad weather, which can blind sensors and make the cars inoperable.

One of the many unknowns is how much autonomous vehicles would cost. The prices are likely to decline with mass production, but an autonomous car could remain too expensive for older consumers, many of whom live on fixed incomes.

Toyota, which publicly has been more conservative about projecting when autonomous vehicles may be commercially available, recently invested USD 1 billion in a Silicon Valley artificial-intelligence operation. Nissan is pledging to have an autonomous vehicle on the market in 2020, earlier than Toyota or Honda Motor Co.

Last year, Mr. Shin, the parking lot owner, went for a spin in the prototype Prius. While impressed by the car’s ability to drive straight, he noticed it was not capable of making U-turns or other manoeuvers that older drivers often find difficult.

“For the elderly, reversing the car and navigating curves are the hardest,” Mr. Shin said. “If the autonomous car can learn those skills, it would be reliable.”

The vehicle also needs to slow down. “For us old people, 35 kph [22 mph] is enough,” he said.

As he waited in Suzu for a bus recently, Zenichi Tanaka, 84, noted another concern. “If mishandled, even the robot car might take me to the wrong place. When I think of that, I feel hesitant about it.”