Saturday, April 1, 2017

Car Life, Year 1

It's exactly a year today since I got my Japanese driver's license, and my "beginner" mark is coming off. It's also seven months with the Toyota Aqua; here some early impressions of life with a car here in Okinawa.

Beginner mark.

The Toyota Aqua

The Aqua is a hybrid compact car, tailor-made for daily commutes. It's small — fits in any parking space — and economical, and safer than a kei-car, with features such as side airbags, collision detection, lane warnings and so on. It's big enough for four people or a fair bit of luggage if needed, but really perfect for one to two people or a couple with a baby.

The Toyota Aqua.

When we got the Aqua I hadn't driven a car for over twenty years. I was astounded just how easy cars are to drive today. You press the pedal and it goes. There's no gear-shift, no clutch, no choke, no anything. Starting on a steep uphill slope? The car stops itself from rolling down when you release the brake. Backing up? The rear camera outlines where the car will go. Need to go somewhere? The navigator will guide you.

It will easily reach 100km/h — the practical top speed on Okinawas only highway — and fuel economy is good. My total average over the past seven months is just about 30km per liter or .33 liters per 10km. It varies quite a lot, though. The engine needs to warm up, so short trips use more fuel. Tire pressure and weather makes a noticeable difference, and I get much better mileage from routes I know well than when we're going somewhere new.

The Aqua is not an exciting car. If cars are your hobby you won't find much to like about it. It goes where it should with little fuss, maximal predictability and minimal excitement. It's as useful and dependable as a refrigerator, and just as thrilling. That is fine. Just like our fridge is our appliance for keeping food fresh, the Aqua is our appliance for getting around. A boring commute is a good commute; it means I arrived on time, with no problems.

Driving in Okinawa


The pachinko business in Japan is certainly at the forefront of pushing the bounds of architectural creativity, if not of good taste.

Unlike the big Japanese population centers, Okinawa doesn't have a great public transportation system. The bus network is fine for short trips, but slow and unreliable for long distances. Bicycles are hampered by the hilly terrain and the hot, humid and unpredictable weather. Taxis are relatively inexpensive but still not something you can afford to use on a daily basis.

That means most people have to drive whether they want to or not, so there's a lot of less-than-excellent drivers around. I freely admit I'm one of them. It also means traffic can get very congested on the few big roads on the island.

Morning sunlight near Sunabe.

Speeding is everywhere. For some reason, Okinawan roads have quite low speed limits. A straight, wide 4-lane road that would have a limit of 70 or even 90 km/h back in Sweden is here perhaps only 50. Also, while all speeding is illegal, the penalties are very mild up to 20km/h over the limit — one point off the license and a 10-15k yen fine. The police are much more concerned with drunk driving and serious offences so they will mostly ignore moderate speeding.

That means just about everybody is speeding. The actual speed on Okinawan roads is generally the posted limit + 15-20km/h. Even police cars are speeding along with everybody else. The only exceptions are driving school students; trucks and delivery vans that follow a company policy of keeping close to the speed limit; and some elderly drivers.

Speaking of elderly drivers, and of new drivers such as myself: the "beginner" mark I've been using, and the "disabled" and "elderly driver" marks, are a great idea. All new drivers have to use the beginner mark for the first year, while drivers over 65 can use the elderly driver mark if they want to.

The "Elderly driver" fourclover.

They warn other drivers that your experience, reaction time, cognitive capability or perception is lacking so you need a bit more leeway to drive safely. If a driver gets into an accident with you, they will be held to a higher level of responsibility because of your status. It really seems to work; people do give these cars a bit more space. I know I do myself.

This is a button. It's in every car. In some places it's called a "hazard light". On Okinawa this is the "instant parking space" button, and it's magical. Wherever you stop — no matter how busy or inconvenient — the moment you press this button the spot turns into your personal parking space.

The magical "make parking space" button.

It could be one lane on the main artery during rush hour, in a sharp bend over the top of a hill, or completely blocking a narrow one-way road — it doesn't matter; once you press that button it becomes your parking space. Quite amazing, really, what we can do with technology these days.

Drunk driving is a big problem here. It's of course connected to the lack of public transportation, combined with a culture of regular social drinking. One solution: daiko, or drive-home taxis. They exist elsewhere in Japan too, but are very common here. You call a daiko service, and two drivers show up in a small car. One of them drives your car and the other follows in theirs, while you ride along as a passenger in your own car.

They're more expensive than regular taxis, but not by that much — they're subsidized I believe. If you're not living that far away, and if you share the cost with 2-3 other people, it can be very economical.

Rush hour traffic along Route 58 is actually not too bad if the weather is cooperating and nothing happens. If I leave work at six it takes me 1:25-30 or so to get home, compared to 1:10-15 if I leave at six thirty. The problem is that if something happens — an accident, a concert or some other event — then the rush hour time can easily become two hours.

Leon Eri Dance School. Taken while I was stuck in an endless jam in Ginowan. I absolutely love the typography.

On Friday evenings, there's always things happening, and the traffic is always hideously slow, so I take the highway.  It costs 650 yen each time, but it's worth it to get home in just over an hour instead of two hours or more.

But overall, Okinawa is a good place to drive. Most drivers aren't stressed or rushed, and the pace is fairly relaxed. People are tolerant, give each other space, let each other in and generally cooperate even when the traffic grinds to a complete halt.

About Driving

People say a car broadens your horizons, and they're right. We get to many places we otherwise couldn't. We often go to farmers markets, beaches and restaurants that we really couldn't reach otherwise. The markets especially is a great place for very inexpensive, insanely fresh seasonal ingredients. It's a lot of fun.

Palm trees in the morning.

But a car is also terribly inconvenient. It's a bulky, expensive, dangerous machine that needs constant maintenance and attention. When you drive, you need to be awake, alert and focused — no reading, dozing off or daydreaming. Driving really is wasted time. You can't suddenly stop or change direction because you saw a neat-looking cafe or something.  And parking is always a problem.

The car hurts my photography. There's lots of photo opportunities here — I have a list of cool spots longer than my arm already — but in a car I can never just stop, take a picture, then be on my way. It means ten-minutes of finding some place to get off the road, turn around and go back, then find a place to stop so I can walk over to the spot. By that time the scene is already long gone.

This cloud line one morning was absolutely unbelievable. It stayed completely straight and unmixed for over an hour.

But I need to get to work, and we want to explore the island. Until we get self-driving cars, driving is the only reasonable way. There is hope though; here's a YouTube clip of a self-driving Nissan Leaf that goes all through busy London — on highways, roundabouts and busy city streets — in the rain all by itself, without any driver input. Seriously, it is already a better driver than I am. And they (optimistically) aim to have something like it for sale in 2020. If they really do, I'd be sorely tempted to trade in the Aqua...


  1. You need to use that "instant parking space" button to take pictures.

  2. I don't have the confidence to do that yet :) It still feels too wrong for me to dare.

  3. my sons report that other drivers are far more aggressive when they have the 'student driver' signs on the car, or when in a driving school car. I was astonished but after riding along with them I see it happening - tailgaters, cut-offs, honking, etc. It is a puzzle to me because I don't see what possible advantage the aggressors can derive from harassing student drivers. Maybe they're trying to Make America Great by fostering fear and hostility ?

    Of course this is in Denver, where the standard of driving has been getting steadily worse for decades. In South Africa the toxic mix of rich entitled BMW and similar drivers, with unlicensed truck and minibus taxi drivers whose hazard button works just like an Okinawa one, created a truly frightening driving environment. Denver now has a significant majority of rich entitled drivers in a variety of luxury vehicles including pickup trucks. It turns out this is quite enough to create a similarly fraught driving experience.

    So this,
    "If a driver gets into an accident with you, they will be held to a higher level of responsibility because of your status."
    seems a fine idea.

    I am not yet convinced that self-driving cars in uncontrolled environments can work.. level 5 cars have always been 10-20 years away, and I suspect always will be.

    The new AI is based on training black boxes with large amounts of data. I find it hard to believe there will ever be enough data to allow an autonomous car to make the right decision in every driving situation. What we had in 2016 was a well-delivered hype cycle, and here we are at the Peak of Inflated Expectations.

    I live in Co, backpack hunt and fish in Co, Wy, and elsewhere in the mountain west. Google Maps gets lost on the way to most places I'm interested in going. Garmin GPS is even worse, it's possible to be driving down a perfectly good dirt road while the Garmin squawks plaintively, 'please proceed to nearest road'. These are mature systems that don't even make decisions but they are not yet functional except in restricted areas.

  4. Douglas, not sure what makes such a difference. The legal liability may make a difference I guess, but it's also that the overall pace here is fairly slow. Traffic is almost always heavy so you don't really have much incentive to rush anyhow.

    To be sure, there are people that drive really badly. Weaving through traffic, cutting in line, braking at the last moment. And "Y"-plate cars (US service members) are over-represented. But I don't think that's necessarily because US traffic culture is worse; it's more likely just that males in their 20's are immature and bad at driving, and a lot of service members fit that demographic.

    I don't share your pessimism about self-driving cars. They don't use neural networks for all levels of those systems, after all, but mostly just the perceptual systems - visually segmenting out and identifying stuff on the road, things like that. The decision-making levels are all traditional control theory, path planning and so on. You may still use machine learning to improve the planning systems, but in a much more well-controlled manner.

    I used to follow robot soccer. The difference between the leagues with actual robots, and the simulated league was astounding. The simulated systems had real strategy, passing the ball between them, feinting the opposite team and so on. The real robots had nothing of the sort, simply because the perceptual systems were much too unreliable. With dependable low-level vision and lidar systems that can identify stuff (exactly he kind of thing deep learning is good at) there's no reason we can't make very reliable self-driving cars.

  5. agreed the perceptual systems are going to get much better and more reliable, though there is still the problem of bad weather for the vision systems. On the other hand the decision systems have to be able to respond to an essentially infinite number of physical world phenomena, and I'm not sure this can be done with traditional control theory - still have the scars from working on expert systems in the 80s. It seems to me that any reliable decision system for self-driving will need to be equivalent to a general-purpose AI that can live in the physical world.
    But I acknowledge that it may be that I'm too 'vlak in die kop' (Afrikaans idiom for dim, literally 'shallow in the head') to understand the details.. ha.


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