We’ve all heard promises of the benefits of self-driving cars, promises that would serve the growing nations and economies of Asia-Pacific very well. For our fast-growing urban cities, who wouldn’t want to realize the benefits of reduced traffic congestion? For business commuters, who wouldn’t want to get more things accomplished and be more productive on their routes to and from the office? And for those of us who habitually complain about bad drivers, who wouldn’t want to see a future of improved safety on our roads? Asia is poised to take advantage of the benefits of autonomous vehicles but it seems as if we’ve been talking about this future some time now. Why is it taking so long to be realized, and what needs to happen to make this future our reality?

Challenges of autonomous vehicle development

Like so much in our evolving digital world, it’s all about the data. What makes autonomous driving cars difficult is not the sensors that capture thousands of inputs per second, but rather the car’s on-board ability to process all this data quickly, reliably and with the correct response. Today’s advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) software that learns and adapts to a multitude of inputs are helping with this data-processing challenge. And if this seems complicated for just a single autonomous vehicle to manage, imagine the demands placed upon intelligent mapping software that is looking at traffic flows of all other vehicles on the roads, trying to optimise the best route to your destination.

But technical challenges are not the only category of obstacles in the way of realising the benefits of self-driving cars. There are also obstacles in developing appropriate government policies and laws on how to deal with autonomous vehicles on our roadways and in public transport. In addition, there are cultural challenges from many citizens themselves who see autonomous vehicles as a threat to well-established jobs such as trucking and logistics, taxi driving and bus driving.

Lessons from some fast movers

Singapore, China and Japan have jumped out as early movers in attempting to speed up the development and implementation of autonomous vehicles. Their early experience and lessons may provide insights for others looking to join their ranks.

Singapore has been ranked second globally (and first in Asia) when it comes to readiness to adopt autonomous vehicles, according to the 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index published by KPMG Global. The government has been proactive in producing a set of provisional national standards, known as Technical Reference 68, which promotes the safe deployment of fully driverless vehicles in the country.

China has effectively used milestones to focus provincial governments and the autonomous vehicle industry itself with a mandate by its Ministry of Industry and Information Technology that sets 2020 as the year for transitioning from pilot tests to large-scale adoption of autonomous vehicles. China is also investing big in AI companies that are key suppliers enabling the autonomous vehicle industry.

Japan has an inherent interest to bolster its position within the global auto manufacturing industry and wants to use the world stage to showcase its leadership. In 2020, when the world tunes in to watch Tokyo host the Summer Olympics, Japan will launch the first self-driving car service. Seeing may be believing, it is hoped, as the spectacle of the Olympics has often influenced cultural trends and outlooks.

Taking the chequered flag

The benefits of reduced traffic, safer roads and increased productivity are tantalisingly within reach here in Asia if autonomous vehicles can deliver on their promise. If self-driving cars are the future, how soon that future is realised depends on several key things happening. Technology, namely data processing software, combined with government policy and mandates, as well as broader cultural acceptance, will be the racing fuel that takes autonomous vehicles across the finish line.