Boasting nearly seven decades of experience, the East Nippon Expressway Company (E-NEXCO) specializes in the construction, management and maintenance of expressways in eastern Japan. It currently monitors some 4,000km of roadway. In this interview, President Toru Obata discusses his vision for the future of roadway infrastructure amid the shift to autonomous and electric vehicles and explains how E-NEXCO is developing next-generation monitoring and maintenance technologies for overseas markets.
Can you run us through the history and evolution of East Nippon Expressway?
We were founded in 1956 as the Japan Highway Corporation. In 2005, the Japan Highway Corporation was privatized and East Nippon Expressway was established. In the first years, the company was primarily focused on managing and organizing expressways and highways, as well as overseeing the construction of routes and transportation infrastructure. In the last 10 years, we diversified our activities and began conducting maintenance and renovation projects. Rather than overseeing new construction projects, we have developed leading technologies to update and enhance the performance of existing expressways.
What challenges does the Japanese expressway sector currently face?
Currently, the Japanese expressway sector faces three challenges. The first is the aging of Japan’s infrastructure. As expressways and roads decay due to the passage of time, the demands and requirements for maintenance and operation change, forcing us to adapt.
The second challenge is the labour force. With the oldest society in the world, Japan suffers from an aging demography and the total number of available workers is in decline. To lessen our reliance on manpower, we rolled out innovative solutions, including Smart Maintenance Highway (SMH), a system that utilizes ICT technologies and mechanization to increase efficiency and security. Furthermore, we continuously incorporate unmanned vehicles, such as drones, in our operations.
Another major trend affecting the global road transportation sector is environmental sustainability. In recent years, we have invested extensive time and capital in order to decrease carbon emissions and to realize a more sustainable future. As an expressway operator, our main “clients” are automobiles. As car electrification and autonomous driving advance, our duty is to understand how highways should respond and what kind of infrastructure resources we should provide.
The fact that driverless systems are gradually progressing could change the very nature of our business. I believe that we are currently at the starting point of a great transformation. As this transformation evolves over the next 10 years, we must understand what solutions to incorporate in order to support it.
To summarize my explanation, there are three major trends that we must respond to: aging infrastructure, aging of the workforce, and the changing nature of the transportation environment. We already have a well-established track record in tackling the first two trends. For the third one, we are at the start of a great transformation.
When discussing the need to reduce carbon emissions, much of the focus has been placed on engine and vehicle manufacturers. What is the role of transport and infrastructure management companies in reducing emissions?
Japan’s total CO2 emissions amount to 1.15 billion tons per year. Transportation currently accounts for around 17 % of that total. Our responsibility is to create the appropriate environment to reduce that number. The first way to reduce carbon missions is to ensure that our highways are in great condition. This includes managing construction and conducting highway redevelopment so that the maintenance is up to date. With regard to highway redevelopment, increasing the number of lanes to, for example, four lanes, reduces congestion and directly leads to reducing CO2 emissions. We also need to alleviate traffic congestion by increasing the usage of Electronic Toll Collection (ETC).
To support the switch to electric cars and renewable energy, we will increase the number of EV chargers in parking and service areas. Utilizing our R&D capabilities, we want to develop a technology that enables EVs to charge while driving. We are currently working towards testing this technology.
On the facility management side of our business, we ensure that the service areas, tunnels and parking areas that we manage are powered by LED lighting. Furthermore, we make sure that all our operations are done in the most environmentally friendly manner possible, and we strive towards this each day.
We also utilise open spaces along our highways for solar energy, and we have installed solar panels on the roof of toll buildings. From road renovation projects to installing new infrastructure and promoting renewable energy, we look for ecological solutions across our company’s operations. Our goal is to tackle environmental issues in an integrated manner.
If EVs and autonomous vehicles were to become fully operational, highway infrastructure would go through dramatic changes. Over the next 10 to 15 years, how do you believe that highways will evolve?
Looking to the future, I predict that electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicles will become mainstream. Currently the level of car autonomy is at level 3, which is ‘hands-free driving.’ When we get to the level of ‘brain-free driving’ and cars become truly autonomous, we will be able to just watch a movie and relax, and by the time the ride is over we will have reached our final destination! To respond, we must first clarify what our contribution to this phenomenon will be. We must explore potential partnerships and development projects, as well as define the kind of relationship we seek to have with automotive makers.
For driverless technology to be safe and efficient, the vehicle must not be alone in incorporating the technology. Highways and roads must be incorporated in the autonomy system and be an integral part of the solution. To achieve this level of integration, we will need to ensure that we have the most effective cooperative structures with automakers.
With the rise of automated driving, we will also see a larger amount of expressways. Some predict that the number of highways might even double around the world. The reasoning behind this is that with full autonomy, every car would be driving at the same speed, breaking at the same time, and with the same amount of space between the other cars. This would lead to accessible, smooth and highly efficient driving conditions. We are sincerely looking forward to this future.
Japan’s unique demographic situation is creating labour shortages across industries. How are you facing this challenge?
We have two major strategies to deal with labour shortages. The first is to increase the retirement age of workers within our group’s companies, as well as recruiting more senior and elderly workers. With the aging of our employees, we also have to incorporate work style reforms to ensure that our staff can continue to work in the best conditions possible. As people age, it becomes harder to learn new technologies or to acquire new skills. In response, we implemented corporate-wide education programs where employees can choose what skills to acquire and how to acquire them in order to advance their careers accordingly.
The second strategy is to optimize pre-existing operations through technology, such as incorporating IT and computerized systems to increase the efficiency of work previously done by people. To give you a practical example: until recently, on-site inspections were exclusively conducted by humans. Now, however, we utilize drones to inspect and monitor hard-to-access areas, including bridges and tunnels located in remote parts of mountains. Remote inspection and monitoring allows us to increase our efficiency and to lower our reliance on manpower.
Video and drone technology is highly advanced, so we have been incorporating it across other locations of our business, including toll collection sites and Inspection points at high places. We currently manage and monitor around 4000km of roadways. Each parcel of road is under camera surveillance so when a traffic accident occurs or an area needs urgent maintenance, we are able to respond swiftly. We also have a radar technology that detects cracks and potholes automatically.
Furthermore, we digitized all of our past data. Fifty years of road management information is now digitally accessible. By feeding this data into our SMH (Smart Maintenance Highway), we are able to compare the current situation with previously recorded information, allowing us to focus our operations and to predict maintenance operations. Within Japan, our company is one of the most advanced with regards to this type of technology and operations. We are pioneers in using digitalization and ICT for road management.
I am sincerely looking forward to the future and to utilizing the transformative power of data. In the future, data will be shared amongst companies and connected through massive databanks. This world of information will be incredible to use and to explore.
A great example of how data can be used to create solutions is our anti-freeze technology, the ISCOS, a system that uses GPS and radar devices to automatically control the spraying amount and width of anti-freeze agents. The way it works is that it collects data from a vehicle’s tires. Based on the data, it releases the appropriate amount of anti-freeze required. When the road is dry, finding cracks is easy. However, in winter time when roads are covered in ice, identifying cracks is a difficult task. Thanks to our anti-freeze system, we are able to maintain roads and pot-holes no matter the weather conditions. In the Northern areas of Niigata and Hokkaido, we use unmanned vehicles to plough the snow and to conduct similar processes.
Our inspection technologies have received attention and demand both from Japan and from foreign markets. We established a subsidiary in India and introduced our radar technology to detect and monitor road cracks and pot holes. This system can significantly improve the infrastructure of developing nations. Since Indian standards and Japanese standards are different, we make sure to adapt our system to the Indian requirement. Looking at the future, we are sincerely interested in rolling out such technologies internationally, with a special focus on Southeast Asia.
What strategy will you prioritize for your overseas expansion? Are you looking to participate in more Official Development Assistance (ODA) projects?
Up until now, we have not conducted direct ODA schemes. However, we often dispatch our technicians to projects sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Moving forward we look to continue that process and to further participate in public projects and initiatives.
On top of our own subsidiaries, we also have a affiliated company, JEXWAY, which conducts independent marketing analysis and research into various projects focused on, but not limited to, the Asian region. For our ODA projects with JICA, we directly offer infrastructure services and technologies. In contrast, JEXWAYhas a different angle, as it is more about financing and investment opportunities. Whether the project is profitable or not does not matter to JICA. WithJEXWAY , that is different.
If we come back to interview you on the last day of your presidency, what would you like to have accomplished by then?
The number one mission of our company is to ensure safe and secure highway operations. The services we offer must support the economy and the lifestyles of people living here, which means that we must be able to swiftly respond to emergencies, such as natural disasters. As such, during my presidency, I hope to fulfil the mission of our company: to ensure safety and security to all the people that use our services.