Honda made the bold claim this week that it will mass-produce autonomous vehicles capable of performing 100 percent of driving tasks under certain conditions, but that drivers would need to stand by to take control when needed.
This type of autonomous driving is defined as Level 3 by the Society of Automotive Engineers. It 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 handling most driving situations itself, whereas Level 5 is largely theoretical and covers complete automation in any condition.
In a press release, Honda says it has received approval from Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to mass-produce Level 3 vehicles. “This approval enables the automated driving system to drive the vehicle instead of the driver under certain conditions, such as when the vehicle is in congested traffic on [the] expressway,” the automaker says.
Honda plans to launch a next-gen version of its Legend sedan equipped with the newly approved automated driving equipment, called “Traffic Jam Pilot,” by the end of March 2021. Under the deal with the Japanese government, the vehicle will include a data recorder to track its movements and external signage to make other road users aware of its autonomous capabilities.
The vehicle must include a driver-monitoring system that tracks the attention and behavior of the driver. That could mean cameras or infrared sensors to determine whether the driver’s eyes are on the road. There are also strict requirements regarding the “handover” between the car’s self-driving software and the driver:
Before any of operable driving environment conditions become unsatisfactory, the equipment must warn the driver of the transfer of control (handover) back to the driver and must continue safe driving until the handover is completed. When the handover cannot be made, the equipment must safely stop the vehicle.
Honda has been one of the more cautious automakers when it comes to self-driving cars. A recent ranking of the leading companies in autonomous technology doesn’t even include the Japanese automaker, which is the sixth largest car company in the world. Honda has been in talks with some of the top AV operators in the US, but has yet to reveal its own self-driving program. The company has previously said it is targeting 2025 to launch Level 4 capable self-driving cars.
In 2018, Honda announced it would invest over $2 billion in the GM-backed Cruise over 12 years. The automaker helped design the Cruise Origin, a shared electric autonomous vehicle lacking a steering wheel and pedals. Another deal with Waymo, the self-driving division of Alphabet, did not pan out and both companies walked away.
But most companies, including Waymo and Cruise, have said they are skipping Level 3 and working exclusively on Level 4 technology. The reason is that Level 3 is seen as being potentially dangerous, given the need for drivers to stay attentive despite the vehicle performing most of the driving tasks.
Other automakers have been tripped up by the promise of Level 3 driving. In 2018, Audi said its A8 sedan would come with a feature called Traffic Jam Assist that, when active, would relieve human drivers of the need to pay attention during stop-and-go traffic. But the feature was contingent on approval from local authorities, and Traffic Jam Assist remains dormant in most markets around the world. Audi has no plans to activate the feature, and Level 3 automation remains a morass of legal, regulatory, and business-related challenges.
BMW had said its forthcoming electric vehicle would also feature Level 3 capabilities, but when the iX SUV was unveiled this week, that feature was noticeably absent.
Despite these setbacks, Honda is bullish about the possibilities of Level 3 technology. “Honda will remain dedicated to the further development of safety technologies while striving to serve people worldwide with the joy and freedom of mobility,” the company says, “providing people with peace of mind and inspire their feeling of curiosity.”