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'Level 4' self-driving transit cars in Japan won't require licensed passengers: expert panel

An automatic electric vehicle is seen in the town of Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry)

TOKYO -- Highly automated "Level 4" self-driving vehicles should be held responsible for following traffic rules and be operable without the need for a human with a driving license, according to recommendations from a report by a National Police Agency (NPA) expert panel dated April 1.

    The panel's report on traffic rules for transportation services in limited areas such as on buses and electric-powered carts with level 4 autonomous driving technology recommends that while conventional laws require drivers to follow traffic rules, the responsibility to follow the rules in automatic vehicles falls on the driving system.

    In autonomous driving, the system chooses the best operation from information collected by the vehicle's cameras and sensors detecting its surrounding. The technology is split into levels 0 to 5 reflecting how much control the system has over a vehicle. Levels 0 through 3 have already been implemented with rules set, including revisions to laws such as the Road Traffic Act. The Japanese government divides autonomous vehicles into three forms -- mobile services like public transportation, private cars, and logistics services -- and has set differing implementation goals for each type.

    In level 4 technology, vehicles have no driver, and the driving system controls everything including the accelerator and brake; there is no conventional "driver" as defined in the current Road Traffic Act.

    The report says general traffic rules, such as obeying speed limits and traffic signals, will apply to autonomous vehicles. But because of variations in developed technology and traffic environments, the report said there will be a "necessity to set rules flexibly" when it comes to traffic regulations such as giving way to emergency vehicles as well as obligations in the event of a traffic accident, such as reporting to the police or aiding injured persons. The report also did not clarify the primary responsible party for accidents or law violations.

    Meanwhile, supervisors who remotely check multiple vehicles through monitors are expected to take on communications and status check roles in the level 4 service. The report outlines that supervisors must be trained according to requirements, such as knowledge about the system's capability. But it also says that supervisors do not need qualifications, such as driver's licenses, because the system will control the vehicles -- with the level 4 technology, no one involved in running vehicles will require a driver's license.

    In addition, the report emphasized the necessity for securing safety through advance evaluation of operators providing transportation services, such as bus companies. It also called for an administrative punishment framework to remove primary operators when a problem does occur, and also put forward legal obligations for operators not to use systems that don't meet standards.

    Traffic rules for mobile service, which are expected to be implemented earlier than the other two forms of self-driving, were subject to panel deliberations, but autonomous vehicles serving as private cars or in the logistics service were not discussed.

    Mobile service live trials with a view to practical use of level 4 technology are already underway. The central government aims to start the service in some areas around fiscal 2022, and aims to make it common nationwide by 2025. In accordance with the report, the NPA will conduct studies including on revisions to the Road Traffic Act.

    (Japanese original by Noritake Machida, City News Department)

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