With its ageing population (where a quarter is 65 or over) and as home to 10 major automakers, Japan is fertile ground for autonomous driving innovation. 

Indeed, yesterday Honda announced the launch of its first electric vehicle and there are reports that it will debut Japan’s first 'eyes off' self-driving vehicle later this year. 

As with most governments dealing with technological advances, the Japanese government is playing legislative catch-up to provide for full-blown autonomous driving integration.

This blog is the first in a five-part series on autonomous driving in Japan. The other four blogs will explore: 

  1. data protection law; 
  2. liabilities – driver, dealer and manufacturer; 
  3. insurance; and 
  4. telecommunications law and transportation business law.

Autonomous driving levels

There are five levels of autonomous driving: from Level 0 (where the driver is fully in control) to Level 5 (where no driver is required). 

Level 3 ('eyes off') is where the driver can use a mobile phone, but needs to be on hand to take over quickly when pre-set conditions regarding road type, speed, weather, time of day and other factors ('usage conditions') are no longer met.

What is the status of the key regulatory laws?

Amendments to the Road Transportation Vehicle Act (RTVA) and the Road Traffic Act (RTA) came into effect on 1 April 2020, allowing Level 3 automated vehicles to be used in Japan generally.

What do the new laws say?

The RTVA

'Autonomous driving system' (ADS) is newly defined in the RTVA. In short, an ADS means a set of sensors and artificial intelligence with a recording device that replaces all driver capabilities. 

The RTVA also clarifies the technical specifications with which an ADS must comply. These specifications already match international standards as they are the same as were adopted in the 181th session of World Forum for the harmonisation of vehicle regulations (WP29) in June 2020, led by Japan as co-chair of the relevant expert session. Under the RTVA, certain software updates to the built-in ADS program require approval from the relevant Japanese authority.

Previously, vehicle manufacturers and importers had only been required to 'make efforts' to provide users with technical specifications required for inspections and maintenance. 

As it is difficult to repair and maintain ADS-equipped vehicles without such specifications, under the amended RTVA, manufacturers and importers must provide model-specific specifications to mechanics and users.

The RTA

Under the amended RTA, the driver of an ADS-equipped vehicle:

  •  must use a vehicle recording device; and
  •  cannot drive with ADS unless the usage conditions are satisfied.

The driver can use a mobile phone or other screen display device while driving as long as the usage conditions and other safety requirements are satisfied.

What's next?

Level 4 ('brain off') is permitted under the RTA, but essentially only for road testing, and with prior approval of the police. The National Police Agency published guidelines for approval in September 2019 (eg speed must not exceed 20 km/hr), which provide more visibility about how OEMs could obtain approval for testing. 

It had been hoped that the Olympics would act as a game-changer for the deployment of Level 5 ADS. It remains to be seen if they will be on the roads (with corresponding legislation) anytime soon.