Automatic Driving Cars in Japan

IMG_5172_1We’re not talking about a new transmission, instead, think Knight Rider. On Kume Island, Denso Co. in partnership with NEC is developing a car that can drive automatically. This project is one of several as the town works to turn itself from agricultural outlyer to a fully renewable clean energy smart island.

With a population declining by around 100 people per year, such initiatives are essential for dealing with a growing elderly population and creating new jobs so that young people don’t need to leave. The automatically driving car program starts this year.

Demonstration at Kume Island High School

IMG_5154_1The idea of automatically driving cars is not new. Back in the eighties the show Knight Rider gave us one glimpse at what the future might look like. Again in iRobot, we had automatic cars. That future is starting now on Kume Island.

Denso has customized a Toyota Prius to drive by computer controlled course. Using cameras and GPS to lock in its area it can exactly follow a previously driven course. Project leaders demonstrated this technology at an event last week. Guests were asked to drive a course while a technician mapped the course. Then, the car followed the same course automatically, driving without input from the driver and following the same course and speed.

While this is early in the development process, it seems like a technology that is viable today. The biggest hurdle will be including enough redundancy and safety measures in the software to ensure lives are not put at risk. With the right system it could even be safer than the average driver.

After local government officials and guests tried out the new car, Kume Island High School students were given the chance to ride along and see the car at work.

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Why Automatic Cars?

IMG_5195_1Who besides David Hasselhoff might need an automatic car? Denso envisions future iterations of the automatic car as a kind of taxi. Think of the elderly in Japan who cannot easily drive. Many are located in rural areas where normal public transportation is difficult or not cost-effective. Small, automatic cars might be the solution to providing emergency or routine transportation. Also, what about visitors, especially those without licenses.  Automatic cars could be the path forward in tourism or even for locals who have had one too many.

Going Forward

IMG_5170_1Like most technology, automatically driving cars are not going to become mainstream over night. There is still a lot of work to be done on refining systems and ensuring the safety of the occupants. Starting in June, the project will begin testing its car on Oo Island, using the results to refine software and prove mechanics. Over the next year, two more cars will be added to give researchers more data to work with.

Next year, the researchers plan to move from hybrid to electric with an original car design. Technology is always changing, and it’s changing right here.