Japan intends to set aside exclusive bandwidth for vehicles that can operate almost fully autonomously as early as fiscal 2026, hoping that using the same frequencies as the US and Europe will promote development of self-driving vehicles and related parts, Nikkei has learned.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications sees the bandwidth being used by Level 4 autonomous vehicles. They could exchange information directly with other vehicles and equipment on the road, letting them change lanes, merge, drive in convoys and take other actions without human involvement. Such information would reduce the risk of collisions if the autos supplement information from their own sensors and cameras.
Though Japan already designates wireless spectrum bandwidth for self-driving systems, its use is limited to applications such as driver assistance for avoiding collisions at short distances. Experts say more bandwidth needs to be allocated for more precise autonomous driving.
The ministry is discussing allocating part of the 5.9 gigahertz band, now used for broadcasting. It intends to spend JPY 20.5 billion (USD 140 million) to modify wireless transmission equipment so that the operations of broadcasters are not impacted.
Plans call for this newly allocated bandwidth to be used in a test area in Shizuoka prefecture as soon as fiscal 2024. Japan looks to set up lanes just for self-driving vehicles in this area, which stretches more than 100 kilometers on the Shin-Tomei Expressway, part of a highway system connecting Tokyo and Nagoya.
The bandwidth will be available on a self-driving lane to be created on the Tohoku Expressway, which connects Tokyo and northern Japan, in fiscal 2025 or later.
Self-driving vehicles use various means of communication depending on the distance of transmissions. Typically, onboard sensors detect conditions near the auto, up to a distance of about 200 meters, while cellular phone networks are used for distances of 1 kilometer or more.
The newly allocated bandwidth will be used for distances between 200 meters and around 1 kilometer. Communications are expected to be more reliable than cellphone networks.
Europe, the US and China are ahead in adopting the 5.9 GHz band for autonomous driving systems. The European Commission decided to assign the band in stages. The US announced in 2020 that it will allocate that band, while China also has adopted it.
Level 4 autonomous vehicles are not expected to operate on roads in those regions in substantial numbers for several years. In Japan, self-driving vehicles that use the bandwidth likely will be mass-produced starting around 2030.
The entire market for self-driving vehicles is estimated to reach up to USD 400 billion in 2035, according to McKinsey & Company. For manufacturers of the vehicles and their parts, product development will become more efficient if the same bandwidth is used in different markets.
Japan is rushing to lay the groundwork for autonomous vehicles, thinking they will go mainstream around 2040. In April, the government lifted a ban on Level 4 automated driving on public roads. Pilot programs using self-driving cars are expected to launch in about 50 locations nationally around fiscal 2025.
The government is discussing rules regarding who would be liable for traffic accidents involving autonomous vehicles. The private sector is also progressing, with Honda Motor and General Motors joining forces to launch driverless taxis in Japan in 2026.