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Safety Mania

Ichiro Suzuki

The Japanese government has recently announced that dedicated lanes for driverless cars be laid out in the existing highway system, beginning with Tomei Highway that connects Tokyo and Nagoya, in the fiscal year 2024. They also said that such dedicated lanes be expanded into general roads in FY2025.

Japan is sharing with many other countries a problem of driver shortage. On top of post-COVID worker shortages in general, this is a country of declining population with fewer younger people coming into the labor market every year. The problem is made worse by the upcoming tighter labor regulations to be enforced in 2024, which strictly limits overtime work hours on truck drivers as well as people in other fields who are subjected to chronic long hours. In recent years, a few car accidents made headlines caused by overworked truck and bus drivers, claiming multiple lives. While tighter regulations are sensible in the face of tragic accidents, a greater number of drivers can’t be found to make up for shorter work hours of drivers. Worse, more parcels are delivered every year due to the rise of e-commerce.

Driverless trucks are supposed to offer a solution to the driver shortage problem. Now the Japanese governments is going to test level 4 truck driving on dedicated lanes. This seems to be manifestation of everything that’s wrong with the Japanese economy for perhaps well over half a century. Bureaucrats at Kasumigaseki want to go with excessive caution to ensure 100% safety in driverless cars, or any new experiment. There can’t be 100% safety in anything but this is still what they aspire to pursue because Japanese people want it. Along with driverless cars, ride-sharing is yet to be brought onto Japanese roads, essentially due to fierce opposition by the taxi industry that preaches safety to politicians. In the face of difficulty in recruiting new taxi drivers, the industry is raising the age limit of drivers to 80. This doesn’t seem like the safest solution to the problem.

Outside of Japan, on the other hand, driverless EV taxis are already roaming in major Chinese cities. Driverless Waymo taxis started serving San Francisco a year ago. Two dozen states allow deployment of autonomous truck fleets in the U.S. Level 4 driving is not without problems, and has not been proceeding according to its original plan. This is especially true for trucks. A few IPOs in recent years proved to be flops. Tesla has not so far come up with trucks that are as reliable as its passenger cars. Regulators and car makers are pressing ahead, nonetheless. This is how progresses are made. No one outside Japan has ever talked about laying out dedicated lanes for driverless cars, regardless of what the problem are.

Clocks is stopped in the minds of Japanese politicians and voters, with little consideration of what is going on in the world outside. What Japanese people want to have is feeling safe on top of safety. The latter can be measured in numbers, i.e. safety standards, whereas the former is fuzzy feelings that give comfort to people’s minds. Even if safety standards are cleared, it doesn’t automatically make people feel safe. They have to get used to what safety standards deliver, and this takes time. By the time the majority of people feel safe, they might find themselves way behind the rest of the world, like animals in the Galápagos Islands that have been going through their own evolution process.

About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.

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