Visions of cars that drive themselves without emitting a bit of pollution while entertaining passengers with online movies and social media took centre stage at the Tokyo Motor Show.
Japan, home to the world’s top-selling carmaker, has a younger generation disinterested in owning or driving cars. The show is about wooing them back. It’s also about pushing an ambitious government-backed plan that paints Japan as a leader in automated driving technology.
Nissan Motor showed a concept vehicle loaded with laser scanners, a 360 degree camera setup, a radar and computer chips so the car can “think” to deliver autonomous driving.
The Japanese carmaker called it IDS, which stands for “intelligent driving system.”
Nissan, based in Yokohama, said it will offer some autonomous driving features by the end of next year in Japan.
By 2018, it said vehicles with the technology will be able to conduct lane changes on highways. By 2020, such vehicles will be able to make their way through intersections on regular urban roads.
Nissan officials said they were working hard to make the car smart enough to recognise the difference between a red traffic light and a tail light, learn how to turn on intersections where white lane indicators might be missing and anticipate from body language when a pedestrian might cross a street.
Nissan’s IDS vehicle is also electric, with a new battery that’s more powerful than the one currently in the automaker’s Leaf electric vehicle. Although production and sales plans were still undecided, it can travel a longer distance on a single charge and recharge more quickly.
A major challenge for cars that drive themselves is winning social acceptance. They would have to share the roads with normal cars with drivers as well as with pedestrians, animals and unexpected objects.
That’s why some carmakers at the show are packing the technology into what looks more like a golf cart or scooter than a car, such as Honda’s cubicle-like Wander Stand and Wander Walker scooter.
Instead of trying to venture on motorways and other public roads, these are designed for controlled environments, restricted to shuttling people to pre-determined destinations.
At a special section of the show, visitors can try out some of the so-called “smart mobility” devices such as Honda’s seat on a single-wheel as well as small electric vehicles.
Regardless of how zanily futuristic and even dangerous such machines might feel, especially the idea of sharing roads with driverless cars, that era is inevitable simply because artificial intelligence is far better at avoiding accidents than human drivers, said HIS analyst Egil Juliussen. It just might take some time, such as until the 2030s, he said.
Such technology will offer mobility to people who can’t drive or who don’t have cars, and it can also reduce pollution and global warming by delivering efficient driving, he said.
Other carmakers, including General Motors, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and Tesla are working on self-driving technology, as are companies outside the industry, such as Google and Uber.
Cars already can connect to the internet. Automakers envision a future in which cars would work much like smartphones today, to have passengers checking email, watching movies or checking out social media and leaving the driving to the car.
Honda chairman Fumihiko Ike, who is also head of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association which organised the show, said the Japanese government was putting tremendous pressure on Japan’s automakers to perfect self-driving features.
Japan is eager to showcase such technology in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, such as having driverless cars pick up athletes from airports and taking them to Olympic Village.
But Ike acknowledged he had doubts. Unexpected things could happen on roads, like a package falling out of a van, and the human brain has better powers of the imagination than the best artificial intelligence, he said.
“We have to see,” Ike said on when self-driving cars might become common. “The final answer will be from the whole society.”
Toyota president Akio Toyoda said the technology has clear benefits but also shared Ike’s reservations. “It’s not that easy,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the show. “We are pursuing the technology, but we are also just being realistic.”
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