In just 10 years or so, you may be traveling around comfortably, free from traffic jams and accidents, in a vehicle that drives itself.
The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry will soon embark on a project to realize an "autopilot system" for automatic driving, a system for guiding motor vehicles on expressways without human assistance.
The envisioned autopilot system is expected to contribute significantly to such goals as alleviating drivers' fatigue, preventing road accidents and easing traffic congestion. It would be for vehicles referred to as self-driving cars capable of sensing their environment and navigating by themselves, with people not required to perform any mechanical operation besides choosing their destinations.
With a view to making an autopilot system a reality in the early 2020s, the ministry will launch a study panel of experts at the end of this month or later, to start full-scale discussions about a self-steering vehicle control project.
The ministry envisages an autonomous vehicle system in which, after leaving your home, you enter an interchange of a nearby expressway while manually operating your car.
When pulling into the expressway's lane exclusively for the autopilot system, you change your driving mode to "automatic driving" and input your destination onto the system. You would take your hands and feet off the steering wheel, gas pedal and brake.
You would return to driving on your own only after reaching an intersection near your destination. Until then, you would leave all driving tasks to the self-steering system, comfortably enjoying whatever activity you like.
If materialized, the system would prevent human error from causing road accidents in the automatic driving areas.
"The system could prevent such accidents as a vehicle veering out of a lane, as happened with the tour bus that struck a wall alongside Kanetsu Expressway on April 29," an official of the ministry's Road Bureau said.
The autopilot driving system would also enable the elderly, who sometimes have difficulty making quick judgments and keeping attentive while driving, to use expressways safely, according to the ministry.
The ministry said about 60 percent of traffic jams on expressways are due to vehicles slowing down on ascending slopes.
By having vehicles travel up slopes without decelerating, by means of the autopilot system, traffic congestion would be eased significantly, the ministry said. It would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Some motor vehicles in practical use already have such functions as using radar to maintain a certain distance from the vehicle in front of them. There also are vehicles that sound a warning when they are about to swerve from a lane for such reasons as the driver dozing behind the wheel.
Meanwhile, antenna networks for transmitting information to drivers about traffic congestion and potential accidents on expressways were completed across the country last year, the ministry said.
A ministry official said, "The planned autopilot system, in combination with the road information transmission system already in place, will make it technically possible to realize driverless driving in about 10 years."
There are, however, a number of hurdles that must be cleared before this can happen. Among them are how to design a central control center in charge of administering traffic on expressway lanes exclusively for autopilot vehicles, and the feasibility of using an automatic tracking function to have one vehicle guide a number of others.
It would also be extremely expensive if roads have to be built exclusively for autopilot vehicles, raising the problem of how to fund such construction, the ministry said.
Furthermore, there is the question of how to devise rules to deal with accidents involving an autopilot system, the officials said. A key problem is which side--the driver, or the developer or administrator of the system--should be held responsible.
The planned panel comprising experts, including some from the auto industry, will hold wide-ranging discussions about these fundamental questions before proceeding to demonstration experiments, according to the ministry.
Toshiyuki Inagaki, a University of Tsukuba professor who specializes in risk management engineering, said, "To enhance the safety of motor vehicles, it will be necessary to heighten the quality of the arrangements to have machines help people drive."
"The development of an autopilot driving system, however, will give rise to new questions, such as the responsibility for accidents involving the system," Inagaki said. "It is indispensable to design the system as carefully as possible based on in-depth discussions."