Honda is firming up plans for its autonomous future. To date, the company has offered little more than a concept car it doesn’t intend to build (the battery-powered NeuV that was seen at the 2017 CES show) and a sparsely detailed partnership with Waymo. But late last week, Honda declared its intention to bring a fully self-driving vehicle to market by 2025.
Unlike the robo-taxis or autonomous shuttles that many transportation experts say will be the first automated vehicles to reach the road, Honda’s self-driving car is intended for personal use. Should the plans come to fruition, the vehicle might represent one of the first that buyers of regular cars could get their hands on.
Honda says the car will fit the definition of a Level 4 autonomous vehicle, in which the self-driving system can control a car for an entire journey, albeit one that might be within a geofenced location or have other operational restrictions. This new goal builds on earlier stated plans for Honda and Acura vehicles to have Level 3 capabilities by 2020.
The company showcased its Level 4 prototypes on a closed course in Japan, demonstrating the workings of a sensor package that includes multiple cameras plus five lidar and five radar units.
“There is an indicator that Honda may be having issues developing some of its automation systems in-house.”
– Navigant Research
Curiously, Honda is developing a separate autonomous-driving system, geared toward urban driving scenarios, that omits lidar from its sensor stack and is equipped only with cameras. Images are used to detect location, and these are analyzed by Honda’s proprietary deep-learning systems, which the company says can respond to complex road environments such as roads without proper lane markings.
A handful of other companies—including Tesla Motors and Starsky Robotics—also eschew the use of lidar sensors that use laser beams to detect objects and measure range. In explaining Honda’s decision to use lidar in one scenario but not the other, a company spokesperson said, “The urban-driving scenario represents Honda’s latest efforts to leverage our research on AI with deep learning to handle complex driving tasks and respond to factors you won’t typically find on the freeway.”
Overall, Honda’s autonomous efforts have lagged behind those of competitors. In March, an analysis released by Navigant Research found that Honda ranked 15th out of 18 companies it examined for self-driving-vehicle strategy and execution. The authors indicated that Honda had struggled to develop its own automated systems and that little help was on the way from the Waymo partnership.
“There is an indicator that Honda may be having issues developing some of its automation systems in-house,” the authors wrote. They also noted that the automaker and Waymo (the company spun out of the Google self-driving car project) signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2016 to “discuss potential collaborations between the two companies.
“However,” they wrote, “since Waymo has indicated that it is not seeking to supply its automation system to other OEMs, any partnership between Honda and Waymo may be limited to supplying base vehicles that Waymo would utilize to provide its own mobility services.”