Japan: Legalization Of Self-Driving Vehicles In Japan: Progress Made, But Obstacles Remain

Last Updated: 1 July 2019
Article by Dan Matsuda, Edward Mears and Yuji Shimada

On May 17, 2019, the Diet of Japan passed a bill to amend the Road Transport Vehicle Act, which includes, among other changes, introduction of the term “automatic operating device”. Furthermore, on May 28, 2019, the Diet separately passed a bill to amend the Road Traffic Act, which includes an amendment to allow drivers to use self-driving vehicles in certain conditions (the so-called “Level 3 Driving Automation” as defined below).These amendments are in line with the roadmap introduced by the Japanese Government in order to establish certain goals regarding self-driving vehicles in Japan in order to facilitate (i) Level 3 Driving Automation on highways and (ii) Level 4 Driving Automation (defined below) in certain limited areas by 2020.


SAE Driving Automation Levels

Similar to other countries that have set goals to introduce self-driving vehicles, the Japanese Government adopted the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) J3016 Levels of Driving Automation1 (SAE Automation Levels) in order to describe the levels of driving automation that Japan intends to adopt. The SAE Automation Levels consist of six levels of Driving Automation: Level 0 (No Driving Automation), Level 1 (Driver Assistance), Level 2 (Partial Driving Automation), Level 3 (Conditional Driving Automation), Level 4 (High Driving Automation) and Level 5 (Full Driving Automation).

From Level 0 to Level 2, the driver of the vehicle is generally responsible for conducting all or part of the dynamic driving tasks (DDT), such as handling, accelerating, braking, monitoring the driving environment and adjusting lights to enhance visibility, etc.

Commencing from Level 3, however, a vehicle automated driving system (ADS) becomes generally responsible for conducting all of the DDT while the ADS is operational. In particular, the biggest leap of automation is seen between Level 3 and Level 4, where the system’s dependency on a DDT fallback-ready user (i.e., a human driver able to assume control of the vehicle) is significantly reduced. Level 3 (Conditional Driving Automation) of the SAE Automation Levels is defined as the conditions where “the sustained and ODD2-specific performance by an ADS of the entire DDT with the expectation that the DDT fallback-ready user is receptive to ADS-issued requests to intervene, as well as to DDT performance relevant system failures in other vehicle systems, and will respond appropriately.” The ADS reliance on having a DDT fallback-ready user is reduced at Level 4 (High Driving Automation), which is defined as “the sustained and ODD-specific performance by an ADS of the entire DDT and DDT fallback without any expectation that a user will respond to a request to intervene.”

Amendments to Road Traffic Related Acts

Japan’s current road traffic related acts were drafted and enacted based on the assumption that the driver of the vehicle (rather than a computer system such as the ADS) is responsible for conducting the DDT (and therefore is responsible for any accidents).These regulations did not anticipate an ADS conducting all of the DDT while the ADS is operational. Accordingly, in order to permit the use of Level 3 and Level 4 ADS vehicles in Japan, an amendment of the Road Traffic Act and the Road Transport Vehicle Act was necessary to incorporate the ADS concept and to adjust the driver responsibilities for ADS enabled vehicles.

Key Amendments

Amendments to the Road Transportation Vehicle Act

  • The term "automatic operating device"3 has been added to the list of devices which must satisfy safety standards if equipped in a vehicle. A vehicle with an automatic operating device must also have a drive recording device equipped.
  • The Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism may set conditions on the usage of each automatic operating device (Usage Conditions). The ODD for Level 3 and Level 4 driving automation are likely to be covered by such Usage Conditions4.
  • Rules to maintain the performance of the equipped devices, such as routine inspections, are applicable to automatic operating devices.

Amendments to the Road Traffic Act

  • The term "automatic operating device", which refers to the definition contained in the Road Transport Vehicle Act, has been included to make it clear that the act is applicable to vehicles which utilize an ADS.
  • The driver cannot use an automatic operating device equipped vehicle that does not have a drive recording device equipped to it.
  • The driver of a vehicle equipped with an automatic operating device cannot use the ADS unless the ADS satisfies the Usage Conditions.
  • As long as a vehicle equipped with an automatic operating device (i) is not an improperly maintained vehicle, (ii) satisfies its Usage Conditions and (iii) the driver is (a) capable of promptly noticing changes if conditions arise which do not permit the satisfaction of either (i) or (ii) above and (b) can take control of the driving functions of the vehicle in such circumstances, then the driver of such vehicle will not be prohibited from using mobile phones or other handheld devices, or using navigation systems, televisions and other screen display devices while driving.

Remaining Issues

Although the necessary amendments to the road traffic related acts have helped to move Japan’s adoption of self-driving vehicles forward, there are other issues that need to be resolved before self-driving vehicles can actually be used in Japan. One of the main outstanding issues is determination of the rules for criminal and civil liabilities in the event of a traffic accidents involving self-driving vehicles. Because these provisions have not yet been updated, a driver may still be held responsible for criminal or civil liabilities for a traffic accident caused by a vehicle under automated driving even if the driver operated the self-driving vehicle properly5. This issue affects not only drivers but also manufactures and insurance companies, and is therefore likely one of the thornier issues remaining to be resolved.


1The Japanese Government used the definitions from the "JASO TECHNICAL PAPER Taxonomy and definitions for terms related to driving automation systems for On-Road Motor Vehicles", which was a Japanese translation of SAE International J3016 (2016) "Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to Driving Automation Systems for On-Road Motor Vehicles"

2Operational Design Domain

3Automatic operating device is a English translation of "jidou soukou souchi", which is closely related to the same term used for automated driving system.

4According to "The Technical Guideline for Safety of Self-driving Vehicles" announced by the Road Transport Bureau of MLIT, the following are examples of Usage Conditions;

  • Road Conditions (e.g. highway, general road, number oflanes, exclusive road for self-driving vehicles etc.)
  • Geographical Conditions (e.g. urban area, mountainous area, setting a geo-fence etc.)
  • Environmental Conditions (e.g. weather, night-time usage restrictions etc.)
  • Others (e.g. speed limits, adjustment of infrastructure such as traffic lights, driving course limitations and security personnel requirements etc.)

5 The National Police Agency clearly mentioned that even for self-driving vehicles, criminal liabilities will be decided on a case-by-case basis and factors such as defects in the automatic operating device, maintenance of the vehicle and carelessness of the driver will be considered.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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