Abe beats Obama in game of chicken – Japan’s METI behind driverless car development

Look, Abe-san, no hands!

Look, Abe-san, no hands!

Remember when President Obama was sitting in a Chevy Volt, and the Secret Service would not allow him to drive? Even after he pointed out that as the President of the United States of America, he owned the damn company? No dice. Obama’s Japanese colleague, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, showed much more confidence into the products of the Nipponese industry. Abe today drove around in an autonomous car today. One? What am I saying, three!

It wasn’t quite driverless, but the driver of the autonomous LEAF did a “look, Ma, no hands!” into the on-board camera, while the electric car piloted itself through the streets around the Diet in Tokyo. On the B-roll supplied to media, Abe looks not at all apprehensive. He waves to the adoring masses, Toshiyuki Shiga, still COO at Nissan, sits grinning in the back seat, while the driver takes his hands off the wheel. In America, that driver would have been shot, despite, or rather because of the raised hands.

I had a similar no hands experience a few weeks ago, when the driver raised his hands while we went across Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge in a Lexus GS that was heavily augmented with sensors, RADAR, and a trunkful of computers.  Careful Toyota would not call their auto autonomous. They claimed they were showing clammy-handed me a new technology called AHDA (Automated Highway Driving Assist). I was too speechless to ask, but Toyota told The Nikkei quite confusingly that they will “introduce a system that prevents hands-free driving” when commercializing its self-driving technology.

Nissan did not have such qualms today. Nissan is on record that it wants to sell commercially-viable autonomous cars by 2020, and that the technology will be available across the entire model range within two vehicle generations.

While Obama wasn’t allowed to drive the Volt, Abe repeated the no-hands stunt two more times  in self-driving cars by Toyota and Honda today. Qualmless Nissan so far is the only company that has the story on the ticker and the video on-line. It’s Nissan’ story, but it wasn’t even Nissan’s event. The photo-op was organized by Japan’s formerly powerful METI, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which heavily supports the drive to self-driving cars.

So we thought the battle of the autonomous car is between disruptive Google and a forestalling auto industry? Turns out, Google is up against METI, and good luck with that. “Japan is superior in having technologies developed jointly by the government and private sectors,” Honda President Takanobu Ito told reporters today.