Back-seat driver: How Honda stole the lead in autonomous cars

Back-seat driver: How Honda stole the lead in autonomous cars

TOKYO -- Do you hate driving in traffic jams? Ever longed to read a book, check email or watch a video instead of looking at the car ahead of you inching along into perpetuity, surrounded by honking, lane-grabbing aggression, wasting hours of your day that could be spent on something -- anything -- else?

If you live in Japan and have millions of yen to spend on a new car, you may be in luck. Honda Motor has developed the antidote to one of the least pleasurable aspects of the driving experience. Just flick on "Traffic Jam Pilot," sit back and let your car effortlessly steer while you take your mind off the road.

Honda has said it will unveil the technology by the end of March in the flagship model Legend, the first car in the world able to operate nationwide using "level 3" autonomous driving technology. In practice, this is similar to Tesla's Autopilot or Cadillac's Super Cruise -- both level 2 software that steers cars to stay in a lane and follow the vehicle in front, braking and accelerating when needed. Level 3, however, goes beyond level 2 in that the car can take over all safety-critical functions in some cases, known as "conditional autonomy," operating without driver supervision.

In theory, the driver can read a book, watch a movie, play a game -- anything except sleep or drink alcohol [for that, you have to wait until level 4]. The driver needs to be prepared to intervene within a moment, if prompted.

The launch is a rare world first for Japan's conservative car industry, putting it into the front ranks of autonomous driving for personal vehicles. Japan has lagged conspicuously behind the Chinese and Americans, the two artificial intelligence superpowers, in their high-profile efforts to develop driverless robotaxis.

"Of the world's three to four automotive capitals, Japan has been one of the slowest to embrace driverless technology. That may be changing," said Tu Le, head of Sino Auto Insights, a technology and automotive consultancy based in Beijing.

KPMG put Japan a distant 11th in its July 2020 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, a drop of one place from the previous year. Meanwhile, U.S.-based research company Guidehouse Insights failed to mention Honda in its March 2020 report on the sector.

But both Honda and Japan's government clearly see a major opportunity to reenter the game. The launch is the culmination of a six-year effort to modify the country's road traffic legal code, regulatory framework and insurance industry in the service of commercializing level 3 self-driving technology at a national level -- not to mention the tolerance of Japan's citizens to be guinea pigs in an extraordinary experiment with robotics.

"The [Japanese] automobile manufacturers first threw the ball into the government's court, because regulations made it impossible for them to commercialize the technology," said Kazuo Shimizu, a motor journalist and former race car driver who is now a member of a government working group for automated driving. "But it was Tokyo which threw back the ball to industry by changing its laws ahead of anyone else in the world. And the player that caught that was Honda."

The main obstacle to level 3 is not technology -- the top hurdles are legal and regulatory. Germany's Audi, for example, was the first to unveil its A8 sedans with "Traffic Jam Pilot" technology in 2017. But Audi so far has been unable to equip its level 3 functionality, due to regulatory reasons. "Introduction of the Audi AI traffic jam pilot requires both clarity regarding the legal parameters for each country, and specific adaptation and testing of the system," the company noted on its website the same year. In 2020, the company made it clear the feature will not be offered in its current generation of A8s.

Japan, on the other hand, changed its legal code in an effort to make the car, not the driver, responsible for the driving -- a yearslong, massive multi-ministry effort, with the government finally bringing into force the revised laws in April 2020.

Indeed, many industry experts believe the technology is still unsafe because it requires the driver to assume control of the vehicle within seconds -- too short a time, according to Volvo Cars CEO Hakan Samuelsson. "The driver shouldn't need to be reactivated faster than a couple of minutes," he told Automotive News in 2019. "Otherwise, it's a very dangerous system. If you cannot do that, you have a pilot-assist system like you have today, which requires total supervision at all times by the driver."

Though Mercedes-Benz is set to launch level 3 features to its S class later this year, most of the industry has remained with level 2 technology, requiring supervision but advancing its features.

There is a paradox in the driver ceding control to the car, as well: The more reliable the system becomes, the more trouble the driver has staying engaged. That is particularly problematic for level 3, where the driver must be alert to "fallback tasks," or a takeover request from the car. Because of that, "many even argue that level 3 autonomous driving will not be realized widely," said Takaki Nakanishi, CEO of Tokyo-based automotive consultancy Nakanishi Research Institute.

But level 3 on public roads has made Japan a "pioneer," added Nakanishi. "This marks an opening for the era of autonomous driving, though we are still at very beginning of that dawn."

The new Honda Legend is a bright spot in a bad year for the Japanese car industry. The timing of the launch was supposed to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics -- rescheduled from 2020 to this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic -- to showcase Japan-made technology. Toyota Motor was also planning to operate self-driving buses to pick up and drop off athletes during the games.

But the pandemic was a serious blow to automakers' performance, compelling many to cut expenses for research and development for this fiscal year through March. R&D spending fell 1% year on year over the same period for Toyota, the world's biggest carmaker by sales, with a 3% drop for Nissan and the same for Honda.

And while the automobile market has seen a rebound since autumn with a series of new model launches, the scarcity of semiconductors is hitting carmakers hard. Honda has had to reduce output: The company said at an earnings conference on Feb. 9 that it expects to sell 100,000 fewer vehicles than had been expected in November, though various cost-cutting measures are estimated to lift net profit higher than last year's.

For Honda, introducing the level 3 technology was about "survival," according to President Takahiro Hachigo, speaking at an earnings conference in May. He promised continued investment for next-generation technologies even amid the challenges of COVID-19. "We think we need to do whatever we can for survival, so we're not thinking about cutting back," he said.

Honda will go further in this direction with the appointment of Toshihiro Mibe, former head of R&D known for his focus on electrification, as incoming company president this April.

Many details about Traffic Jam Pilot are yet to be unveiled to the public. The last time Honda gave any information on the technology was in a filing to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), revealed in November, where it said the system turns on at speeds below 30 kph and can drive as fast as 50 kph. The system turns itself off after the traffic congestion clears, the vehicle speeds up and the driver takes over.

"Conditional autonomy" means the technology only works in very specific situations: The traffic jam in question has to be on a freeway, where all traffic is presumably moving in the same direction and without any complex intersections. While cameras and dozens of sensors, comprised of millimeter-wave radar and light detection and ranging, assess the environment surrounding the vehicle, high-definition mapping and GPS deliver information on its precise location.

Much else is unclear until the launch, including demand for what is a fairly limited service, admitted Toshio Yokoyama, executive chief engineer at Honda, though he emphasizes that it can offer "significant value for those who use highways to commute every day."

But its limits are also a strength. Minimizing the role of the system to slow driving makes it unlikely to trigger a fatal accident -- one of the reasons Honda could dare to launch the feature.

"If the autonomous driving technology is not appropriately deployed and gives a dangerous impression, then it will simply fail to catch on," said Takashi Naono, a director of automobile policy at MLIT, including for autonomous driving.

Honda traditionally treads an uneasy line between daring and caution. Traffic Jam Pilot's speed limit of 50 kph far undershoots the 60 kph allowed by regulations, and although laws allow the use of smartphones, it may still discourage screen time while driving. In a video shared with media in 2017, Honda demonstrated a test drive where the driver receives a phone call through the car's dashboard display, not a mobile phone.

Even after six years of legal wrangling that enabled the system to take control from the driver, it remains unclear how far the system is responsible for passenger safety. Fallback tasks are one such gray area: If an accident occurs, could it have been prevented with a takeover request made a split-second earlier? The revised laws say that the onus for safe driving still lies with the driver, a rule intended to make automakers less skittish in developing automated systems. But the rules for criminal liability involving autonomous vehicles are still vague, said legal experts -- and likely to be tested the first time one of the cars has an accident.

"What will be at stake is to what extent an automaker has designed the system," Shimizu said. "That is why companies will try to prevent any risk of accident by making driving as safe as possible."

The government's goal is eventually to use level 3 as an advantage in reaching level 4, where the system takes over all the driving tasks in certain circumstances. That is something it expects to see in 2025 for cars traveling on highways. Some system designs in level 3 can be considered a half-step to level 4 -- especially, for example, where the car automatically slows if a driver does not respond, completing the task for them.

The ministry is working on legalizing "motorway chauffeur" -- another kind of level 3 autonomy on highways that allows speeds of over 60 kph -- as well as more advanced kinds, including level 4. "We would like to talk with Honda on sharing the driving data for Traffic Jam Pilot for further development," said MLIT's Naono.

Progress will have to be not just steady, but rapid. In terms of the driverless mobility revolution, "Japan is lagging way behind the U.S. and China," said Nakanishi. Although the country and local authorities had allowed a dozen test drives in rural areas before the legal changes, "it is yet to have enough data to make it internationally competitive. In the past, Japan has been too cautious to experiment," he added.

There are questions over whether the high-technology leap is economic -- or, indeed, if Honda expects it to be at all.

"Honda has always wanted to be a trailblazer and eat raw oysters ahead of everyone," said the motor journalist Shimizu, using a Japanese phrase to describe a person willing to take risks in order to be the first.

Honda's enthusiasm for level 3, however, comes amid much new pessimism for self-driving more generally. Many industry predictions saw level 4 cars in wide use by 2020, but that has only happened in a few isolated, laboratory-like suburbs in Guangzhou and the U.S. city of Phoenix.

In December, Uber Technologies announced plans to sell its autonomous driving unit to Aurora Innovation, a startup with investment from, ditching the effort to develop its own self-driving car.

Meanwhile, Alphabet-owned Waymo -- Google's sister company, founded as the Google Self-Driving Car Project over a decade ago -- publicly sought to manage expectations of consumers when it criticized competitors for claiming their technology was "self-driving" in a blog post on Jan. 6. Without naming Tesla, Waymo said the term "self-driving" was "giving consumers and the general public a false impression of the capabilities of driver-assist (not fully autonomous) technology." Waymo now refers to its own technology as "autonomous driving."

Other companies are still pushing ahead with "level 2 plus," where the software manages some hard-to-perform driving tasks like parallel parking.

Despite its reputation for unbridled ambition, Tesla is among them. It has begun offering a test version of Full Self-Driving Capability, a feature that can guide a vehicle down a highway from on-ramp to off-ramp, suggesting lane changes and navigating interchanges. For now, the feature is dependent on a fully attentive driver who "has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment," but the company promises that the technology is designed to improve.

Super Cruise and Nissan's ProPilot 2.0 also allow hands-off driving that automatically follows the vehicle ahead, but, as with Tesla, these so-called level 2 plus technologies only assist, while the driver remains responsible.

More are skipping directly to level 4, but within carefully circumscribed limits. Waymo's robotaxis, for example, operate in just a 50-sq.-mile area of Phoenix. The startup is coming to terms with a different reality than it imagined: In 2018, Waymo forecast its automated Chrysler minivans to be skimming the streets that year, and electric Jaguars from 2020. Both plans remain unrealized.

Experts say that level 3 -- conditional autonomy -- may offer quick gains as the road to level 4 extends longer and longer.

"New technology is usually featured in top models, since they are profitable and certain customers prefer to have that technology even at a high cost," said Nobuhito Massimiliano Abe, senior partner at A.T. Kearney. "But with more units sold, the technology develops and consumers will be able to tap into it via more affordable models. Level 3 is currently on that trend."

Various driver assistance systems at levels 1 and 2, with capabilities ranging from automated brakes to overtaking, entered the mass market this way.

Still, there is a huge gap between level 3 and 4, he emphasizes. "Challenges accumulate when considering a driverless vehicle, which does not allocate responsibility to a driver at all," Abe said. "Preparing a vehicle to face unknown obstacles is hugely difficult. Tech companies believed it would be a great business opportunity, but automakers, which embrace a culture of safety, are aware of its challenges."

In addition to Waymo, China is widely considered ahead of the pack. However, it, too, has had to manage expectations after China's top economic regulator, the National Development and Reform Commission, in 2018 had predicted half of all new cars on its roads would be autonomous by 2020, which clearly has not happened. In February 2020, the NDRC said it would have mass production of vehicles with conditional automation by 2025, without specifying how many.

"Technology problems remain the biggest challenge," Li Zhenyu, the head of Baidu Apollo, said in September at the company's annual technology conference, according to local media. Baidu expects its full rollout of robotaxis without a safety driver to be possible only in 2025. But WeRide, a Chinese startup, announced in February it will offer level 4 minibuses in the Chinese city of Guangzhou this year.

Tokyo also says level 4 technology will be on highways by 2025 for personal cars. Driverless taxis and other mobility services are also expected to operate in at least 40 venues nationwide -- including plants, airports, highways and even residential streets -- by around the same time.

Honda wants its invention to travel -- not just in Japan, but overseas as well. The Japanese government's efforts to make its laws friendly for autonomous driving are aimed at creating a model for other countries, which would mean more exports.

In the past, Japan's technological leaps have had trouble connecting with international markets: the infamous "Galapagos syndrome." Much of the country's technology remains fantastically evolved but divergent from global norms and standards. The 1990s and 2000s saw Japan launch cutting-edge phones, endowed with features from TV reception to internet to mobile payment. But because they were developed on domestic telecommunications standards, they couldn't be deployed abroad.

Japanese regulators have been chastened by bitter experience not to make the same mistake: They now see it as necessary for Japanese systems to be used in foreign countries, and for foreign systems to be used in Japan.

The automatic lane-keeping system -- on which Honda based its technology -- was internationally approved last June when a key United Nations body, the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29), adopted the technology as a global standard. Japan co-led the drafting of the regulation with Germany, and the regulation came into force in January.

Japan long had been determined to make this happen. In 2016, the land ministry, together with related ministries, research bodies and automakers, founded an institute dedicated to lobbying self-driving regulations to a working group in the WP.29. A series of research and driving simulation tests was also conducted at a sister laboratory, setting the groundwork for a safety protocol to alert drivers to take over, and establishing a minimum of 10 seconds for drivers to respond to a transition demand.

In the government's 2020 Infrastructure System Export Strategy, it declared that the country would "promote international standardization and acquire de facto standards in partner countries, through collaboration with international organizations such as the WP.29," amid fierce international competition.

But the main reason for the success, according to experts, was that these regulations had already entered into force in Japan two months earlier, making them a reference point for discussions.

"Prior to other member countries, Japan already had domestic guidelines [which turned into laws]," said Naono from the land ministry. Japan was able to provide technical data for each requirement. "This experience put Japan in a leading position. ... We can't go our own way, nor be left behind others," Naono added.

"The market size for automobiles is much larger in China and the U.S. than in Japan," he argued. The whole point of having international clout is "to not make exports and overseas business difficult for Japanese carmakers."

Japan's technological revolution is first and foremost a legal revolution. The government is determined to allow its roads to be used as laboratories, in an effort to prove that the technology is safe -- if, in fact, it is.

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