A staff member of Nissan gestures to the media as he rides its LEAF electronic car with the new driving system "Autonomous Drive", which utilizes sensors and cameras to drive automatically, during a photo opportunity at CEATEC JAPAN 2013 in Chiba, October 1, 2013. Photo by Yuya Shino, Reuters
TOKYO - Cars that drive themselves used to be a pipe dream, only to be seen in the movies. But with cars already packed with information technology, the idea is no longer far-fetched for global automakers, and the competition is heating up.
U.S. companies are leading the way. Last year, Google Inc. posted a video on YouTube showing a car traveling on its own while its "driver" eats a hamburger with his hands completely off the steering wheel. The clip, covering a slice of the firm's 200,000 miles of computer-led driving tests on public roads, has been viewed almost 5 million times.
Google is aiming to introduce the technology by 2017, while General Motors Co. has announced a plan to put its own automated driving technology into practical use in the second half of the 2010s.
With the new technology expected to reduce accidents caused by human error and give opportunities for the elderly and the handicapped to travel by car, rivals are also entering the race.
Nissan Motor Co. was among the first Japanese automakers to announce plans to market self-driving cars. The Japanese firm is looking to put the technology on the market by 2020, setting up a driving test facility near Tokyo.
"Obviously, we've seen the reaction from the public. There is a lot of attention and thirst from everybody about the automated car," Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said earlier this month as he sat behind the wheel to test his firm's prototype self-driving car at the CEATEC high-tech show in Tokyo.
"We are under pressure from a lot of competition...We're going to get there even sooner than we think. What's going to be left is only the reliability of the system."
Nissan is looking to begin its first tests of its driverless car, equipped with artificial intelligence, on public roads in Japan.
Toyota Motor Corp. has also recently announced it is joining the battle. It is planning to launch a safety system for highways featuring automated driving technology in the mid-2010s, but its approach slightly differs from Google and Nissan, whose ultimate goal is to build completely driverless cars.
"Of course we want to establish a perfect technology for automated driving, but we believe it always needs to be a human that drives a car, and such technology would just serve as a support for drivers. We are not planning to market cars which run without a driver," said Susumu Umemura, general manager at Toyota's future project division.
"But it will definitely be one of the most important technologies we need to put resources into down the road. We would like to deliver it to our customers as soon as possible."
Honda Motor Co. unveiled a prototype of its automated driving car on Tuesday at the ITS World Congress held in Tokyo. The car is equipped with camera, censor and telecommunication systems, and it stops when it senses danger and drives itself from point to point.
Though Honda has not unveiled a specific date for putting the vehicle on the market, it is a "must-win game and we will definitely put a lot of efforts into this area," said Naoki Hayashibe, general manager at the technology development division.
There are many challenges, however, to realize the dream of self-driving cars. Shigeru Matsumura, equity researcher at SMBC Friend Research Center, says the development of legal systems remains the biggest agenda in Japan and elsewhere.
"In the event of an accident, would it be a driver or an automaker, or a software maker that would be held liable? Japan is lagging behind in such discussions compared with the United States. I think we have to go a long way before driverless cars grow popular," Matsumura said.
Analysts and researchers also point out that self-driving cars would deprive car enthusiasts of the joy of sitting behind the wheel, contradicting automakers' efforts to promote a driving culture.
"But it is certain that automated driving system will be the hottest issue in the auto industry in the next few years," said Matsumura.