TOKYO -- Japan's big automakers, famed for their fondness for automation -- think of Honda's robot helper Asimo -- finally are ready to make a big push into self-driving cars.
After deliberating for years about the best way to bring the technology to market, Honda, Nissan and Toyota used the stage at the Tokyo Motor Show last week to outline their next steps. Each company said it plans to sell cars by 2020 that will allow drivers to give up the wheel in traffic jams and while cruising on the highway.
Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn, the Japanese industry's most vocal proponent of automated driving, said Nissan intends to harness the same pioneering spirit that led it to gamble on the Nissan Leaf and turn it into the world's top-selling electric car. If Nissan doesn't, he said, challengers will.
"The tech companies will take as much space as we are ready to abandon," Ghosn told Automotive News in a reference to Apple, Google and Uber, all of which have assembled sizable teams of experts on self-driving cars. "If we leave ground uncovered, if we are slow in developing autonomous cars, neglecting connected cars, well, guess what? We're going to be calling for more competition coming from outside the industry."
Last week in Tokyo, Nissan unveiled the IDS Concept, a sleek hatchback teasing a next-generation Leaf electric vehicle chock-full of autonomous systems.
The concept has a folding instrument cluster designed for automated driving. If the driver switches to autopilot, the steering wheel tucks away and the cluster pivots forward to place a giant touch screen where the steering wheel used to be.
The IDS was just one of an assortment of wild, self-driving concepts spread across the show floor. Among them was Honda's Wander Stand, which uses an omnidirectional in-wheel motor system to carry two passengers in a bell-shaped pod resembling a telephone booth.
One reason for Japan's new boldness is its government, which has been quicker than others to invest in vehicle-to-infrastructure communication networks that will help automated vehicles learn about lane closures, traffic jams and even other vehicles or pedestrians lurking in blind spots.
The 2020 date is significant. It's not only the same as Google's target for commercializing self-driving cars but also the year Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics, which leaders here see as a chance to showcase a resurgence of Japanese technology. Japanese media are fixated on the idea of athletes traveling to sports venues in self-driving cars.
"The Japanese government wants to be No. 1," Fumihiko Ike, chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, told reporters. "That's why they gave us a target of 2020 to showcase this technology."