In the 1980s, Japan was at the forefront of automation in the automobile manufacturing industry. In a 1983 New York Times article, John Holusha reported that robot had entirely replaced humans in body welding and painting in Japanese car factories. The technology, he said, was not more advanced than that in the United States, but it was much more pervasive. Between then and now, Japan has seen two “Lost Decades,” with slow economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s. But now, Japanese auto manufacturers are seeking to reclaim the country’s position as the leader in the auto industry by improving the efficiency of their factories and developing new autonomous driving vehicles.
Nearly three and a half decades after the aforementioned New York Times article, Japan still has the most automated car industry in the world. Japan’s auto sector employs around 1,562 robots per 10,000 workers, compared to only 1,091 in the United States and 1,133 in Germany. Auto manufacturers are far ahead of other Japanese industries, with only 219 robots per 10,000 in all Japanese businesses. The nation is home to 309,400 robots, the most of any other country. Part of the reason for the prevalence of robotic automation is the Japanese practice of lifetime employment. The custom dictates that employees ought to be hired for life, making the cost of a single employee (and the benefit of a robot) greater in Japan than in other industrialized countries. Despite the prevalence of robotic automation, some plants have actually begun rehiring humans. Toyota, for example, has put people in some previously automated jobs in order to provide a craftsman-like quality in certain stages of the manufacturing process. This will make the process more efficient, Toyota argues, and it has remained the highest-selling automobile manufacturer in Japan to this day.
Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers are also trying to catch up to American companies like Google and Tesla in their production of self-driving cars. In 2016, Time’s Kevin Kelleher estimated that automated driving in Japan is still five to ten years behind the United States, but since then, Toyota and others have started taking self-driving cars more seriously. In 2016, Toyota created a billion-dollar research center for the purpose of developing automobiles that utilize AI and machine learning. Nissan is working on developing autonomous parking technology. Honda created a concept vehicle called NeuV which won’t be able to drive autonomously but will be able to generate emotions and perceive the emotions of the driver. A spokesperson from Honda called this technology an effort to solve the problem of a highly individualized society. As of 2017, changing regulations have encouraged some Japanese automakers to switch their focus from advanced driver-assistance systems to autonomous driving. As a result, Honda has partnered with billion-dollar Chinese AI startup SenseTime to develop a self-driving car by 2020. They unveiled an innovation lab focusing on robotics, energy, and AI in 2017. In the near future, this should mean that Honda, like Toyota, will produce an autonomous driving vehicle.
The future is bright for AI and automation in the Japanese automobile industry. Not only have automakers been able to utilize robots without sacrificing the quality and efficiency of human workers, but they have begun developing technology for self-driving cars that could allow them to compete with the models being built by Google and Tesla. This technology has wide-ranging uses: earlier this year, CNN reported that Nissan’s autonomous parking technology was being used in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel) to produce self-straightening shoes and furniture. It remains to be seen how far AI and automation will permeate Japanese society.
Written by Jack Vasquez & Edited by Alexander Fleiss
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