The Mainichi answers some common questions readers may have about the development of self-driving cars.
Question: The development of self-driving cars is progressing well, right?
Answer: First of all, it should be pointed out that there are several levels in relation to self-driving cars. Level 1 is the simplest standard where there is an internal system that supports either automatic acceleration/deceleration or control of the steering wheel. Level 2 types of cars are equipped with a system that supports both acceleration/deceleration and the steering wheel. With regard to Level 3, all of the functions are automatic -- depending on certain conditions -- and the driver can take control of the car if necessary. For Level 4, all of the functions are automatic depending on certain conditions, but the driver has nothing to do with the control of the car. For Level 5, every function in the vehicle is automatic regardless of any conditions, and the driver does not control the car. These levels are also used in the U.S. and Europe.
Q: What is the current situation?
A: Major Japanese automakers, including Subaru Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., are currently selling cars that have automatic brakes as well as the capacity to follow other cars. These vehicles are classed as Level 1. Furthermore, these firms are also developing Level 2 cars that are able to change lanes and overtake. On July 11, the German car maker Audi announced that it will sell a Level 3 version of its flagship A8 model from 2018 onward, making it the first Level 3 car on the market anywhere in the world. In addition, American corporate giant Google Inc. is currently aiming to create a Level 5 car.
Q: When will self-driving cars become "normal?"
A: Cars that are Level 4 or above are described as "complete self-driving systems." These kinds of cars require an extremely high level of technology. Therefore, they will not be on the market in the near future. In Japan, the government is aiming to permit Level 2 cars on expressways by 2020, and hopes to bring in Level 4 transportation services in sparsely populated areas. It is also aiming to introduce Level 4 cars on expressways by around 2025, and have self-driving transportation services (with no drivers) across the country. However, the current "self-driving cars" are designed to support drivers, and control by the driver is still key. In addition, it is crucial that drivers realize that they must not depend too much on the car, and understand the vehicle properly in order to avoid accidents. (Answers by Kenji Wada, the Business News Department)