Honda has been one of the more cautious automakers when it comes to self-driving cars, and a recent study put the company at 15th out of 18 in terms of overall advancement. At a media event this week, however, Honda shared more about its plans and set a target of 2025 for introducing vehicles with Level 4 autonomous driving capability.
Honda has already said that it intends to have vehicles capable of Level 3 freeway driving on the market by 2020, and is reiterating that goal today. Level 3, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, refers to highly automated driving where the driver still needs to be able to take over the vehicle upon request. Level 4 automation means that the car is capable of handing most driving situations itself, whereas Level 5 is largely theoretical and covers complete automation in any condition.
“We are striving to provide our customers with a sense of confidence and trust by offering automated driving that will keep vehicles away from any dangerous situation and that will not make people around the vehicle feel unsafe,” Honda president and CEO Takahiro Hachigo told reporters.
Hachigo made his remarks while outlining a broader vision for the company over the next 13 years; he also said Honda plans for various forms of electric vehicle to account for two-thirds of the company’s sales by 2030. And from this fall onward, following the launch of the new N-Box, all new Honda vehicles sold in Japan will come with Honda Sensing driver-assist features as standard.
So, how close is Honda to achieving its more ambitious goals? Earlier this week, I “test-drove” two cars outfitted with prototype automation technology at the company’s R&D center in Utsunomiya, Japan.
The first drive tested automated freeway driving technology of the type Honda plans to introduce in 2020. I got into a Legend (Acura RLX in the US), drove from a parking lot onto a ramp and pressed an “auto” button on the steering wheel; the car then merged with the closed-track “freeway.” With my hands off the wheel and my feet off the pedal, the car accelerated to 100 kph (62 mph) to overtake a vehicle in the slow lane.
Later, in a simulated traffic jam, the car let me know that I was able to use the entertainment system mounted on the dashboard. A Skype video call then came in, which I answered with a button on the steering wheel, and I was disconnected once the traffic cleared up and the car started to accelerate beyond a crawl. The second time I took this demo, however, there seemed to be a glitch coming out of traffic and I had to drive myself the rest of the way back.
The next demo was for technology required to achieve Level 4 driving, and took place on regular single-lane streets around the R&D facility. While the Legend in the first demo was outfitted with advanced sensing technology, the car in the second demo ran on nothing but three conventional cameras. Honda is developing an AI system with supervised machine learning based on image data, and the company is in the process of bootstrapping, or feeding it a large set of data to learn from.
That makes it hard to judge the effectiveness of the AI system on a course that has presumably been run hundreds of times before. But in the back seat, there was a monitor that provided real-time analysis of what the car was “seeing,” and it was clear that the system could accurately detect things like the edges of roads even when they weren’t clearly marked. The car drove around for several minutes, stopping at crossings and letting other vehicles pass without any human intervention.
It’s early days for this technology, however, and several automakers appear to be ahead of Honda in their development of self-driving cars. “We are not trying to catch up with others but we are trying to achieve something unique to us,” Hachigo told reporters. “One approach is we are going to evolve our Honda Sensing technology to firmly establish automated driving. We are also discussing the possibility of joint R&D activities with Waymo, and that will be a separate technology from Honda Sensing. So in that regard, we have our strategy — we’re not just catching up, we are a leader.”
The partnership with Waymo, the Alphabet self-driving car unit that was spun out of Google X, was announced back in December with little in the way of detail. And Honda isn’t quite able to answer how its own homegrown AI technology will coexist with Waymo’s. “What we’re trying to do with Waymo is make Level 4 a reality,” Hachigo says. “Honda and Waymo have just started discussion of what we can do together in terms of research and development work, so nothing has been decided yet.”
But it’s notable that Honda is talking to Waymo at all about these things, and today’s statement of intent to reach Level 4 by 2025 shows the company doesn’t want to get left behind. The biggest question, as ever when the worlds of technology and transportation collide, is what it can bring to the table itself and what it may be better off leaving to partners.