National Police Agency preparing for fully automated driving in limited areas

Japan is considering a system to screen and approve providers of fully automated driving services within limited areas, under the supervision of prefectural public safety commissions, the National Police Agency said Thursday.

The agency says it aims to submit an amendment to the road traffic law to parliament next spring, as the government intends to start “Level 4” automated mobility services in designated areas of the country, such as along abandoned railroads, in the fiscal year that runs through March 2023.

Operating under Level 4 automation, a vehicle always performs the functions of acceleration, steering and braking, including in emergencies, according to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.

A government panel that has been discussing the autonomous driving services, and new mobility concepts such as electric scooters, released its final report Thursday, which will serve as a basis for the police agency’s amendment bill.

According to the agency, the amendment will stipulate that fully automated driving will be allowed only for vehicles operated in designated areas for the purpose of providing mobility services for passengers, instead of private cars.

In such services, vehicles will be operated autonomously under remote monitoring without a driver. They are required to follow traffic rules and need secure safety measures, such as stopping when their systems fail.

Service providers will be required to submit their operational plans to respective prefectural public safety commissions, according to the agency.

If there are any traffic violations or incidents that deviate from the submitted plans, the public safety commissions will be able to suspend or revoke permission, as well as give necessary orders.

A draft bill is also expected to include regulations on electric scooters, stipulating that riders must be at least 16 years old but that driver’s licenses are not required. It will also likely encourage users of electric scooters and bicycles to wear helmets.

Vehicles will be categorized depending on their sizes and speeds. Electric scooters will be among “small low-speed vehicles,” defined as being similar to bicycles in size with a maximum speed of 20 kilometers per hour.

If drivers of those vehicles can show they are controlling them under 6 kph, they will be allowed to ride on the sidewalk.

Violators of the rules will be served with traffic tickets, and repeat offenders will be obliged to take a traffic safety class.

Electric scooter sharing service operators will be encouraged to provide safety education for riders as well, according to the agency.

“Sidewalk vehicles,” including autonomous delivery robots, will be defined as those similar in size to electric wheelchairs and with a maximum speed of 6 kph.

Operators of remotely controlled robots will be obliged to register their names as users and the locations where the robots will be operating.

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