TOKYO — Since the beginning of 2013, as many as 3,500 people have died on Japanese roads. Some 52% of these victims were aged over 65, representing a high mortality rate of 6 per 100,000 in an age category that is progressively becoming the dominant generation — in the aging archipelago, 1 out of 4 Japanese is over 65.
In 2060, senior citizens are expected to account for 40% of the entire population, and an actual majority of car drivers.
To try and anticipate the "grey wave," Japanese car manufacturers are studying technological solutions that will be able to prevent a surge in the number of traffic accidents. This is promised to include cars in the future that are not only more intelligent but more autonomous.
"The goal of all this research is to build safer vehicles, which can actually drive better than human beings," explains Brian Lyons. a new technologies specialist for Toyota.
Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault and Nissan, declared last month that: "We believe the public is hungry for these automated cars."
Before last month's Tokyo Motor Show, Japanese manufacturers showed their recent creations to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Similarly to Google which is investing heavily in this technology, most of them presented cars that come equipped with a complex set of detectors and radars, communication tools and lasers that guide the vehicles by anticipating the movements of other cars and pedestrians around it.
Complex technology, complex laws
For instance, Nissan's autonomous model "Leaf" strictly follows the markings on the tarmac so as to follow the road perfectly, be it in straight lines or in curves. In Toyota's Lexus, the driver is assisted by powerful GPS systems that can locate to the centimeter the position of the car and its orientation, but also with cameras that reproduce human vision and the homemade Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) system, a turret placed on the car's roof that can detect objects and movements 360 degrees around the car.
Other computers are also installed to collect data from the surrounding vehicles as well as from road infrastructures, and can thus receive information about the fluidity of the traffic, the position and status of traffic lights, potential crosswalks, and other factors. All this data is analyzed by a powerful processor that instantly converts the algorithms in appropriate action upon the steering wheel, brakes or accelerator.
Some of these elements are already integrated in high-end cars. Eventually, experts reckon that technology will lead to a profound revolution in transportation. "These autonomous vehicles can avoid deadly accidents, but they can also offer a new mobility to the elderly or even to people who are paralyzed, as well as reduce traffic jams on the roads and lower gas consumption," the American Eno Center for Transportation summed up in a recent study, predicting a gradual development of these solutions. The institute however, doesn't believe in the total abolition of human intervention.
Nissan's Ghosn has promised a fully autonomous model for 2020, but no experts seem to share his optimism given the number of technological and, more importantly, institutional roadblocks ahead. No country has yet adapted its road regulations to these vehicles. Insurance companies are also pondering the legal framework required for such circulation, based around a fundamental question: If there is an accident, who's responsible? The driver or the manufacturer?