By >RENO J. TIBKE
Japan’s Robot Cars: Where’s this Road Going?
Optimus Prime, Hot Rod, and Ultra Magnus. These are all robot cars from the Transformers franchise rooted in early 1980s Japan. Somewhat disappointingly, here in realityland it looks like Japan’s real robot cars will have names like Nissan, Toyota, Fuji Heavy Industries, Honda, Mazda, and Hitachi.
Assume gravelly cowboy voice:
“Hitachibots, transform and roll out!”
Yeeaaah… umm, nope.
Okay, sadly Japan’s big automakers aren’t yet churning out sentient, anthropomorphized, purely good or purely evil all-male robot warriors. But they are very hip to developing and deploying practical versions of so-called robot cars in cooperation with domestic government agencies (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism – MLIT), one another, and given their global reach, international partners as well. Domestically, the current aim is to deploy highly autonomous, self-driving cars on freeways within 9-10 years. If the system proves successful, a global brand like Nissan or Toyota would surely find additional markets in other, much larger national freeway systems (ex: the massive national networks of China and the United States).
Concepts and proposals for robotic automobiles have been around for almost 80 years, and functional experimentation has been ongoing since the early 1980s. Actually, when breaking it down by individual features, 0ne can see that cars have been gradually roboticizing for a long time, e.g., power steering, power windows, power mirrors, anti-lock brakes, etc., etc.
So naturally, big J-Auto’s development of self-driving, partially autonomous, and arguably robotic feature sets isn’t novel. The 2003 Toyota Prius (Japan only), for example, was the first car available with a sonar-based Intelligent Parking Assist System (IPAS) wherein the driver operates the brake and the car calculates optimal steering angles for automated parallel parking (this option didn’t make it to the U.S. until 2009). Robotic features aren’t limited to driving, as here with the 2006 Mazda Miata’s Transformer-like power sunroof:
So what else is there with the Japan/robot car special connection situation? Well, geography, as it is so often want to do, must also insert itself into this macro-cultural equation. Insofar as: Japan’s approximately 130 million residents are shoehorned onto a mere 30% of the country’s land area – and not by choice, the other 70% is either too unstable, rugged, or topographically crazy to be inhabited. So, if one imagines all those people in contiguous urbanization on an island nation about the size of the U.S. state of Ohio, or just a bit larger than Portugal, one can appreciate the extreme population density and everyday challenge of very close-quarter driving and parking.
Another big deal for robotic cars here is the very long-term continuous habitation of the habitable areas. See, when one gets off the modern, 1st world-standard, highly developed roadways, in most cases one will quickly find oneself winding through very narrow streets with little if any standardized configuration. Human beings have been living along the same trails-that-became-roads-that-became-streets for many hundreds, if not thousands of years – long before there was much regard for large-scale municipal planning or an even vague anticipation of the motor vehicle. The analog compensation here is that nearly every non-arterial, non-grid-like intersection in Japan has an array of fish-eye mirrors at each corner, and drivers either use them or risk having no idea what’s coming. A networked robotic car, however, would be able to “see” around the corners, which would be nice when navigating this Tokyo neighborhood:
And then there’s the demographics. We mentioned assistive robots’ role in Japan’s aging society a few weeks back; this country has a big-deal labor shortage coming up in a generation and a half or so. In addition to the role robotics will very likely play in augmenting a dwindling human services labor force, a day spent in any Japanese city futilely looking for taxi or bus driver under 45 will clearly reveal another pending labor shortage. Who’s going to fill those jobs in 25 years? Yep.
Japan is approaching a perfect-storm state of necessity for practical robots, and if proven effective, reliable, and safe, increasingly robotic automobiles are likely to get an early foothold here. Besides, piloting a car in Japan is objectively difficult, licensing and compulsory driving schools are quite expensive, and despite its world-class public transportation system, Japan does experience considerable roadway congestion (networked, self-driving cars are anticipated to greatly reduce traffic jams and the effects of human error). Add in safety benefits, a potentially positive environmental impact, and POW: if it can, big J-Auto will put J-robots on the road ASAP.
Japan’s current repertoire doesn’t include anything ready for public consumption, but there are some very advanced and promising projects underway. Nissan’s modified Leaf, introduced last October as the NSC-2015, as in the year 2015, is an ambitious and innovative offering – complete with smartphone connectivity:
Toyota is also keeping pace with the Lexus-branded Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle that debuted at CES in January:
Bringing things down to the personal, Hitachi recently unveiled their latest version of the Robot for Personal Intelligent Transport System – Ropits. This autonomous, obstacle-avoiding, user-friendly personal transport is intended to one day assist the elderly or disabled:
Japan’s MLIT was scheduled to produce an update to their ongoing robo-car feasibility studies by the end of last month. While not yet public, it’s safe to assume that their assessments and directives probably won’t result in big J-Auto’s production of a transforming robot car that will protect you, your family, and the galaxy from those other, eeeevil robots – but within a few decades, it’ll probably be reasonable to expect one’s very own private chauffeur to be… well, basically just software.
For now and the near future, think of robotic cars as you might think of powered robotic exoskeletons, i.e., they’ll help you do what you need to do with greater strength, precision, and efficiency, but they aren’t going to walk out to the driveway and help you up the stairs all by themselves.
The robots are coming, but for now and a while to come, humans are still going to have to push a few buttons.
Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.