Photo/IllutrationTwo self-driving vehicles run in a park in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, on Nov. 17 in a demonstration test. The front car is an unmanned vehicle. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The National Police Agency late last year unveiled a draft revision to the road traffic law to deal with issues related to self-driving vehicles.

The government and automakers need to swiftly provide sufficient information for the public to understand and judge how much trust can be placed in the current autonomous driving technology and the limitations to its capabilities.

The draft revision would allow drivers to let the automated system take control of the vehicle and turn their attention away from their driving tasks to, for example, use smartphones or watch TV.

Autonomous driving, however, would be permitted within specific areas and under certain conditions including good weather. Drivers can also read books at such a time, according to the draft.

Drivers would have to fulfill the same legal obligations for safe driving as those under the current law, but would be allowed to do so “through the machines.”

When the vehicle moves out of the specified areas or when a situation occurs that cannot be handled by the self-driving system, the vehicle issues a warning to the driver to intervene and immediately retake control.

Autonomous driving would be allowed in a limited scope for the time being, in situations that do not require complicated driving maneuvers, such as during traffic jams on highways.

Basically, it is true that autonomous driving boosts road traffic safety by preventing human errors, which are the causes of most traffic accidents.

The ultimate future of autonomous driving technology will be unmanned vehicles that move around fully on their own.

This technology has the potential to transform transportation, offering convenient means of transport for elderly people and helping maintain transport networks in rural, depopulated areas.

Since this is such important technology, public concerns about it should be addressed through effective efforts to ease people’s anxiety and help it take root.

Many questions have to be answered.

Drivers would be required to be ready to retake full control of the vehicle at any time. But what does “being ready” here exactly mean?

Drinking alcohol and dozing off would be banned. But what about using earphones to listen to music? There are various other situations where the driver cannot respond immediately to a warning and intervene.

Some experts doubt whether a driver absorbed in texting or checking social media can be mentally and physically ready to take over the steering wheel immediately.

It is a concern that if the driver is allowed to use a smartphone while the vehicle is in autonomous driving mode, be it only under certain conditions, smartphone use by drivers could become the norm.

The National Police Agency hopes to start enforcing the law next year. Given fierce international competition over leadership in the development and promotion of autonomous driving technology, it is hardly surprising that the government feels pressure to move quickly.

But it is vital to ensure that a broad public consensus on key issues will be built through a careful process of discussions instead of planning actions for a predetermined time frame.

The public needs to know clearly and accurately what the current technology actually can and cannot do.

How well a self-driving vehicle can handle such dangerous situations as a falling load from a car running ahead or if something suddenly comes flying by, for instance?

When an accident involving a self-driving vehicle does occur, will many people feel that it could not have been prevented even if it had been under human control?

A legal system reflects common perceptions and values within society. Building a consensus on legal issues requires accurate knowledge and broad debate.

The draft revision to the law proposed by the agency should be used as a basis for society-wide efforts to find the answer through exchanges of questions and opinions involving a wide range of people.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 6