Autonomous Vehicles and the Future of Mobility

 In Innovation

Autonomous vehicles will radically change the way we move, but that future is still many years away. That was the main message coming from Yas Kohaya, Chief Liaison Officer at the Toyota Research Institute, and Stephen Zoepf, the Executive Director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford at an insightful discussion of perspectives from Japan and the US on Autonomous Vehicles and the Future of Mobility, which the Japan Society of Northern California presented on June 1 at the offices of Morrison Forester in Palo Alto.

Toyota Bets on Self-Driving Cars

Mr. Kohaya began by describing the establishment in January 2016 of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), the iconic car company’s $1 billion new investment in Silicon Valley, which aims to create a safe, affordable and accessible mobility, including self-driving cars. He noted that Toyota was preparing for a transformation of its company much as it did nearly a hundred years ago when it switched from manufacturing textile looms to making automobiles. Combining artificial intelligence with big data will fundamentally change the automotive industry just as it can impact other sectors such as robots, batteries and production controls. A successful transformation was crucially important to Toyota and as a result it took special measures to help ensure TRI’s success, including making it autonomous so the entity could have compensation comparable to those of Silicon Valley IT companies, be more flexible in HR and imaginative in its approach to research.

Mr. Kohaya noted that Toyota has some important competitive advantages in the autonomous vehicles (AV) space. Foremost, it had unsurpassed automobile manufacturing technology and know-how. The modern automobile was a complicated machine that integrated a number of sophisticated technologies. It would not be easy for non-automotive companies like Google and Uber to make good high quality cars at a reasonable price, an expertise Toyota has honed over more than nine decades. Secondly, Toyota has deep technological expertise in the area of autonomous vehicles, and in fact holds the largest number of AV-related patents of any other auto maker. Finally, they have access to a tremendous amount of data from Toyota cars driven around the world and driving data is the key to success of an AV (to put this in perspective, Toyota has produced more than 200 million vehicles in its lifetime).

The Case for Autonomous Vehicles

Stephen Zoepf began by underscoring the economic case for AVs. Safer AVs could substantially reduce the annual financial cost of car accidents, estimated at up to $2 trillion and once again on the rise after many years of decline. He warned that AVs may not be the cure-all for our mobility challenges, noting that the number of auto miles driven has been increasing despite policy attempts to control it and the rise of ride sharing. Reducing the number of vehicles on the roads was a function mainly of how many people were willing to share a car, and most Americans did not appear to be open to sharing space in a car, suggesting cultural change would be required to have an important impact on vehicle density. At least initially, AV (and ride sharing) was likely to prevail only in those places that had an authoritarian government, high land values and high wages.

How Soon?

Both Mr. Kohaya and Dr. Zoepf urged caution in predicting when fully autonomous vehicle would be on the roads. Toyota did not think a SAE Level 5 (see chart below) fully autonomous vehicle was not likely in the foreseeable future, so it was focusing its research efforts instead at what Toyota calls Guardian technology in which the human is always in control and the vehicle intervenes only when it senses imminent danger. Toyota is also developing, in parallel to Guardian technology, Level 2 in the short term and Level 4 autonomous system for the future. AV faced significant technological challenges, mainly the difficulty of gathering all needed data and transforming that into operating decisions in all kinds of weather and traffic conditions.

Meeting elevated safety standards was another major hurdle. Governments will inevitably hold self-driving cars to a much higher safety standard than human beings themselves. Even one accident could set back research and development for years. The lack of regulation and standardization was also impeding progress. The US was moving fastest to set regulations, though that differed by state and city. Japan was adopting a more of a wait-and- see attitude towards regulation of AVs. Finally, it will take some time to collect and analyze the vast amounts of data – by one estimate monitoring of a trillion miles of travel – needed to make self-driving cars a reality. That would take time and resources to complete.

Having said that, progress was possible in a relatively short time for more modest goal of introducing cars with more AV features. Japan hoped to showcase self-driving car technology at the 2020 Olympics. Cars are already equipped with automatic brake systems and would increasingly have more and more advanced safety technologies. It was also not too early to start exploring the economic, social and political implications of AVs in Japan and the US. Mr. Kohaya noted the importance of AV to support an aging society in Japan, a mobility challenge that the US would eventually face as well. Dr. Zoepf warned that transitioning from driven to self-driving cars could exacerbate income inequality and social discrimination, areas that needed much more research to better understand.


AVs represent an example of where Japanese technology and creativity can combine with American entrepreneurship and risk-taking to achieve remarkable results. The establishment of TRI in Palo Alto, where the company has access to the best engineers and the top tech companies in the world, is an excellent example of that potential.

Many thanks to Yas Kohaya and Stephen Zoepf for sharing their expertise and insights. We very much appreciate the support of the Keizai Koho Center in Tokyo and the National Association of Japan America Societies for their financial support and Morrison Forester for providing the excellent venue and supplying drinks.

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