TOKYO – Japan’s top spokesman for the intelligent transport sector sees enormous opportunity in the Asia/Pacific region in the coming decade.

“If we look beyond Japan to China, South Korea and more than a dozen other countries in the region, demand for cars and trucks will grow at least 10-fold over Japanese levels to 70 million-80 million units by 2020, creating enormous opportunities for suppliers of various telematic and safety systems,” Hiroyuki Watanabe, chairman of ITS Japan, says.

Watanabe, still a senior technical advisor at Toyota Motor Corp., where he rose to senior managing director-environment policy and ITS development, is especially bullish about a nationwide traffic-information system under development.

The system, called Probe, integrates individual technologies from Toyota, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. into a single nationwide network operated by the government “so everyone can share the same information,” he says.

The system also provides more precise information, incorporating data from the National Police Agency, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and other government bodies, Watanabe adds.

“This serves two purposes: to give drivers more accurate arrival time estimates and help them avoid congestion by, among other things, more optimally managing traffic signals.”

Beyond the field of traffic information, Watanabe, in an interview with Ward’s, stresses the urgency of accelerating introduction of active safety technology, another core activity of ITS Japan.

The group dates back to 1994, when it was called VERTIS for Vehicle Road and Traffic Intelligence Society. Comprising four government ministries and 400 private sector firms including all Japanese auto makers, VERTIS changed its name to ITS Japan in 2001.

“More than 1 million people are killed annually in traffic accidents, Watanabe says. “The World Health Organization estimates this number will double by 2020. If we don’t take action now and implement stricter standards, we won’t keep pace with this growth.”

Following is an edited transcript of the interview with the 67-year-old executive, appointed chairman of ITS Japan in June 2009:

Ward’s: How does Japan compare with North America and Europe in ITS technologies?

Watanabe: Japan leads in navigation systems, although we lag Europe in electronic toll collection (ETC).

Ward’s: And with respect to Probe?

Watanabe: Every country in the region is experiencing similar sorts of traffic problems. Thus, we feel that the Probe has great potential.

Ward’s: So you think Probe can be employed in Beijing or Seoul just as easily as in Tokyo?

Watanabe: Yes.

Ward’s: And that Japan is culturally and operationally closer to countries in the region than, say, the U.S. or European Union?

Watanabe: I believe so.

Ward’s: Switching to preventive safety, how important is this technology for reducing life loss and serious accidents – systems like lane-deviation warning, frontal collision avoidance and night vision? Is Japan the leader in this field?

Watanabe: First, I believe Japan is the leader; and second, many of these systems already have been introduced into upper-grade cars. But we must move into mass market segments if we hope to slow growth in traffic fatalities projected over the next 10 years.

We are now reviewing these technologies to validate their effectiveness in real-world situations and presumably will see similar growth trends with earlier systems such as navigation and ETC. In the case of navigation, cumulative sales rose to 40 million units last year, up from less than 1 million 10 years before, including 26 million units with VICS capability.

(VICS, or Vehicle Information and Communication System, is a traffic-information system using road-side radio beacons. The system was introduced in 1996.)

Ward’s: Is system cost still the biggest impediment to expanding sales?

Watanabe: Without question. But we expect to see a similar downward trend in cost as we did with airbags and (antilock brakes) once these systems became standard. Also, in addition to high-end cars, Japanese truck makers – Hino Motors (Ltd.), for instance – have begun to adopt pre-crash safety technology in their vehicles.

(In February, Hino introduced a frontal collision brake system on its Profia truck. It also offers vehicle stability control on all of its trucks.)

Ward’s: Japan still supports the driver-assist concept in its advanced safety systems for cars. Will it soon be necessary to move beyond merely assisting drivers to introducing systems that take over control of the car when a collision is imminent? For instance, two leading suppliers, Denso Corp. and Aisin Seiki Co. (Ltd.), have developed systems that not only detect drowsiness but trigger a collision-mitigating response.

Watanabe: That’s the direction. But as for a timeframe, I really can’t say.

Ward’s: Will the industry’s shift to hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, all of which require more electronic controls, impact ITS?

Watanabe: Quite likely. But a bigger issue than powertrain electronics is vehicle-to-vehicle communications. If we can develop a system whereby two cars communicate with each other to avoid a collision, that would be our ultimate goal. Then again, this isn’t only an issue of technology. We’ve got to get consumers to buy into the concept and understand where they fit. That won’t be easy.

Ward’s: In August, NASA (the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Admin.) reported it couldn’t find any electronic link to sudden acceleration accidents involving Toyota cars. If the results hold up, that means the 90 reported fatalities were due to a design flaw of the accelerator pedal assembly, thus a mechanical problem, as Toyota claimed all along. Wearing your Toyota hat, why has the auto maker shied away from making a case that electronics save lives?

Watanabe: It’s a fact that electronics save lives and prevent accidents. Take vehicle stability control, which Toyota introduced on the Crown in 1995. The effect has been to reduce spinouts on slippery roads by around 30%.

As part of ITS Japan’s development activities, we installed (a grid) of sensors on a Tokyo expressway to alert drivers coming into a blind curve that traffic has slowed down. Although results are still preliminary, we’ve seen a 70% reduction in accidents.

Ward’s: Switching back to EVs, it is my understanding one day EVs may be charged through some sort of microwave system, thus eliminating the need for an electrical outlet?

Watanabe: Converting electric current into high frequency waves won’t be easy and won’t happen soon.

Ward’s: Can you foresee it happening in 10 or 20 years?

Watanabe: To be honest, no. On the other hand, it wasn’t so long ago that people said fuel cells couldn’t be used in cars.

Ward’s: Speaking of which, has the industry overestimated the medium-term potential of pure electric cars?

Watanabe: Not only has the industry overestimated their potential, but society at large has elevated expectations. Even so, I believe there is a market for EVs, and if charging devices can be installed at one’s home and office or in shopping centers close to one’s home the concept should work. And ITS will play an important role by letting drivers know when the battery must be recharged.

Ward’s: I presume this means you still support fuel-cell technology as a better alternative, which, in your days as a senior executive on Toyota’s board of directors, was clearly the case?

Watanabe: The problem for EVs is that charging time is long and running distance short. It will take many years to overcome these issues. I believe that fuel cells and plug-in hybrids are the way to go.

For fuel-cell vehicles, the key is how quickly and cheaply a hydrogen fueling infrastructure can be put in place. Still, when Toyota launches its first fuel-cell vehicle in 2015 or 2016, I expect sales during the first few years to be at similar levels of the first-generation Prius, or around 1,000 units per month.

Ward’s: Back in the mid-1990s when ITS Japan was established, the organization set a very aggressive 2015 sales target of ¥54 trillion ($630 billion at current exchange). Will you reach that level?

Watanabe: We’re not there yet but are seeing steady growth.

Ward’s: Even in the advanced safety technologies (such as) lane-deviation warning, front-end collision avoidance, blind-spot warning?

Watanabe: We have to. As mentioned, (the) WHO is projecting a nearly doubling of traffic fatalities globally in the coming decade. We can’t sit still. And moving forward, the old business model of working down from upscale cars into mass-market segments may not be viable. Regardless of the segment, we must develop cars to match what ITS can do and not the other way around.