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News Navigator: When will we see true self-driving cars on our roads?

The imagined interior of a self-driving car being developed by General Motors Co. in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of General Motors Co.)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the development of artificial intelligence for self-driving cars as the technology becomes a key point in the auto industry.

    Question: How far has the development of self-driving car technology progressed?

    Answer: In the United States, a self-driving car unaided by humans is expected to be coming out this year. Google plans to test the driverless vehicle as part of a ridesharing service in the first half of this year. General Motors Co. (GM) also plans to put a similar service into practical use by the end of 2019, and even released a photo of the interior of the vehicle with no steering wheel or brake pedal.

    Q: What does this mean for the very concept of motor vehicles?

    A: Because these self-driving models do not have the steering wheels and brake pedals required by safety standards, it can be said to be revolutionary. GM has made a request to the U.S. Department of Transportation that self-driving vehicles be treated as exempt from these existing requirements. If the technology spreads throughout the market, cars will just become a mode of transportation, and some point out that the enjoyment of driving will disappear. Still, self-driving vehicles are hoped to eliminate driving fatigue and decrease the number of accidents and traffic jams.

    Q: How does the car move by itself?

    A: Sensors and cameras mounted on the car detect the color of traffic lights, the width of the road in front of the vehicle, information about the rules on the road being traveled, the presence or absence of pedestrians and other factors around the vehicle. The car's software then maneuvers the vehicle appropriately and at the right speeds based on the information.

    The "automatic brakes" previously developed by auto makers such as Subaru Corp. to detect obstacles in the path of the vehicle and stop is one function included in self-driving cars, but the systems are still based on the assumption that humans would still be behind the wheel. If driverless cars are to become the norm, then a far higher level of information processing capability is required.

    Q: When will this technology become available in Japan?

    A: Toyota Motor Corp. plans to run an electric self-driving bus around the venues for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020. Nissan Motor Corp. and DeNA Co. are also aiming to introduce services featuring driverless vehicles in the early stage of 2020s, but it cannot be denied that Japan is far behind the efforts being made in North America and Europe. On the other side of the coin, issues such as who is responsible at the time of an accident involving the driverless vehicles and the creation of other new rules will become necessary. (Answers by Kenji Wada, Business News Department)

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