Japan may beat Google to the punch with self-driving cars for the masses

Japan will begin practicing with unmanned taxi services in 2016 with the hope of commercialising the cars by 2020, narrowing the timeline for tech giants like Google to release the first consumer-ready self-driving vehicles.

Japan’s RoboCab will first be offered in Kanagawa Prefecture, just south of Tokyo, the Wall Street Journal reported. The service will only be utilised by approximately 50 people who will use the car to go from their homes to grocery stores. The cars will travel a distance of just three kilometers (two miles) and have crew members aboard in case there is a need for human intervention.

Although the RoboCab’s release is limited and will only drive short distances, it highlights how the window for putting the first, successful self-driving cars on the market is narrowing.

In November, the first driverless shuttles for public roads will go live in the Netherlands. Known as the WEpod, the shuttle will take passengers to the towns of Wageningen and Ede in the center of the Netherlands. Like the RoboCab, the WEpod’s release is part of a public testing phase that narrows how far the car will go. The shuttles will only drive 15 miles per hour and will not travel in heavy traffic or during rush hour and nighttime.

Google has ramped up testing for their driverless cars, but there is no sign of a public testing phase involving passengers yet. In July, Google started testing its self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs a few miles north of downtown Austin, Texas. This was the first time the cars were taken outside of their normal testing area in Mountain View, California, just outside Google headquarters.

Google carGoogleGoogle’s self-driving car.

But there’s still a ways to go before Google can release its self-driving vehicles to the public, even if just as part of a testing phase. The company declines to provide any timeline for the vehicles’ launch in their September report. And while in Austin, Google highlighted how the need for a human driver is still necessary at times.

In Austin, one of Google’s cars slowed down at a crosswalk to allow a pedestrian to cross, but the test driver hit the brakes to ensure the car would stop in time. After stopping the car, the self-driving vehicle was rear-ended by a car with a human driver.

“In this case, if the car had been left to operate autonomously, it would have stopped safely in front of the crosswalk — great,” the report reads. “Intriguingly, though, it would have braked slightly less hard and travelled a bit closer to the crosswalk before stopping.”

The company concedes that with 10,000 miles travelled per week, the autonomous vehicles are bound to get in a few fender benders, adding that when accidents occur it is never the fault of the technology. This may be true, but while Google is fine-tuning their self-driving technology, passengers in different parts of the world are beginning to experience autonomous vehicles in their everyday lives.

Other contenders set to release the first self-driving cars include GM, Ford and BMW, who have all invested in the technology. Uber opened its Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh this year to test cars with an autonomy system. And Apple may be stepping into the ring as well, though the company has been hush when it comes to discussing self-driving cars.

Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, which was published in August, highlights that autonomous cars are only five to 10 years from hitting the mainstream. If that’s true, the question remains: who will be the first?

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