Autonomous trucks, drones to play starring role in Japan’s Society 5.0

 The amount of congestion - both vehicles and pedestrians - on Japan
The amount of congestion – both vehicles and pedestrians – on Japan’s city streets pose a challenge for autonomous vehicles, which is one reason the county’s Society 5.0 blueprint calls for drone delivery service within 10 years.

Central government sets aggressive timeline to introduce technology

As much of the world is progressing towards Industry 4.0, Japan is going a step further. In its recently released Growth Strategy 2017 report, the county puts technological achievements, such as autonomous trucks and drone deliveries, on the fast track as it seeks to develop Society 5.0.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a preview of the plan back in March, noted the changing dynamics of modern societies.

“We are now witnessing the opening of the 5th chapter,” he said. “We are now able to find solutions to problems that could not be solved before. This is the age, in which all things are connected, all technologies fuse, and this is the advent of Society 5.0.”

What is Society 5.0? According to Abe, it’s basically the understanding that everything in the future will be connected and that society will need to be adaptable. Japan’s Growth Strategy is designed to reflect that. The plan calls for deep integration of technology, including artificial intelligence, robotics, Big Data, self-driving trucks and drones. And it’s all designed to take advantage of available technologies in a way that solves a growing problem for Japan: an aging population.

“The essence of Society 5.0 is that it will become possible to elicit quickly the most suitable solution that meets the needs of each individual. We will become able to solve challenges that have defied resolution until now,” Abe said at the International Conference on The Future of Asia earlier this month.

Japan’s most recent Population Census, conducted in 2016, found that 27.3% of the population is over the age of 65 and that population is expected to exceed 40% by 2050. Those same population trends are taking place across the globe, where the number of people age 60 and over is expected to double by 2050 according to the 2017 revision of World Population Prospects released by the United Nations.

We are now witnessing the opening of the 5th chapter. We are now able to find solutions to problems that could not be solved before. This is the age, in which all things are connected, all technologies fuse, and this is the advent of Society 5.0.

— Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan

The same trends are happening in the U.S., where birth rates have been on the decline. The latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics found that the nation’s fertility rate for women age 15-44 is at an all-time low of 62 births per 1,000 women. 

To counteract these trends, Japan’s plan calls for drone delivery of products starting next year and self-driving trucks on roadways by 2022. There were 3.9 billion packages delivered in Japan last year by a delivery segment that is facing a worker shortage. 

“In 2020, the government will conduct a test with a self-driving truck following a truck with a human driver on the Shin Tomei Expressway, with the aim to commercialize such vehicles as early as 2022,” wrote The Mainichi. The publication added that drone parcel deliveries will begin in 2018 to remote islands and mountain regions with a full-scale system in place in the early 2020s, serving cities.

Those timelines are very similar to what has been expected here in the U.S. What is different about Japan’s approach, though, is that these programs are being led by the government, rather than industry, said an analyst note from Morgan Stanley.

“What is particularly interesting about the Japanese government development is that the timeline came from a national government (rather than an individual company), suggesting, 1) international competition is heating up to come first to market in both technologies, and 2) regulation may not be an impediment to commercial implementation,” the analysts wrote.

In the U.S., there has been plenty of buzz surrounding autonomous trucks, drones and vehicle platoons. Later this year, Peloton is expected to begin offering a two-vehicle platoon system.

Still, despite the innovation, regulations have been an issue. For instance, laws allowing platoons only exist in 22 states currently and Starsky Robotics, which is developing an autonomous truck system that can be remotely controlled, told FreightWaves it’s system can only be tested in three states currently.


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“Regulation has widely been framed as the biggest hurdle for the implementation of platooning/autonomous technology in the U.S, though we have been encouraged by recent developments – most recently, the signing of AB69 in Nevada which updates testing and commercial usage laws for fully autonomous vehicles,” Morgan Stanley’s note said. “We will continue to track the race to commercial implementation of autonomous trucks and remain confident in our timeline of platooning to launch in 2018 and autonomous trucks in 2020.”

Japan, too, has recognized this regulatory concern as technologies develop faster than politicians can pass laws. To address this, the Growth Strategic includes a “sandbox” provision that must still be passed by the country’s lawmakers.

“Current legislation does not take into account drones, fintech and other new technology, so measures to relax regulations will enter the spotlight,” Mainichi reports. “The government will also therefore introduce a Japan-style ‘regulatory sandbox’ to temporarily suspend regulations and allow companies to more easily test groundbreaking technology.”

This sandbox will allow companies to petition a local government authority to suspend rules that are preventing it from testing technologies in new arenas. This approach could accelerate the use of self-driving trucks and drones. It could be particularly helpful for drone deliveries in cities, which are already congested with traffic and people which could complicate any autonomous truck movements.

The approach Japan is taking to reinventing its society involves melding a strong, central approach with local flexibility in regulations. In many ways, it mirrors some of what is happening in the U.S. as the Trump administration seeks to return more control to state and local governments. However, unlike the U.S., which has long allowed industry to take the lead on projects such as autonomous driving and drone deliveries, Japan’s central government is leading the way.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.