Honda Becomes the World's First Automaker to Receive Approval to Build Cars With Level-3 Automated Driving Capabilities

Honda Becomes the World's First Automaker to Receive Approval to Build Cars With Level-3 Automated Driving Capabilities

Author: Eric Walz   

Honda Motor Co. announced that it has received designation for Level-3 automated driving from the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT). 

This approval grants Honda permission to develop and deploy an autonomous driving system on new Honda models that can take over from a human driver in some situations, such as when the vehicle is in traffic on the highway.

The MLIT partially amended Japan's Road Vehicle Act, which went into effect on April 1, 2020, in order to promote the further commercialization of self-driving vehicles.  

The automaker will debut its new Level-3 system on the Honda Legend, a popular sedan in Japan before the end of the current fiscal year, which ends in March 2021. 

Honda calls its autonomous driving system "Traffic Jam Pilot." 

Honda's Traffic Jam Pilot is similar to Tesla's Autopilot and Cadillac's Super Cruise automated driving system for highways. It allows for automated driving on highways, which centers the vehicle in a lane and controls steering and braking. However these systems are considered to be Level-2 only, requiring a driver's attention at all times.

Honda's Level-3 autonomous driving system is not considered to be "fully autonomous" either. Instead it's designed to operate in some environments without human oversight. The system works by monitoring the environment 360 degrees around the vehicle and takes over driving duties when its safe.

If any of operable driving environment conditions become unsatisfactory, the system will issue a warning, and the driver must take back control immediately.

With the approval, the Honda Legend, which is the company's flagship model in Japan, will be the world's first mass produced vehicle to come with Level-3 autonomous driving technology pre installed during production. The Honda Legend is the Japanese equivalent of the Acura RLX sedan that's sold in the U.S.

The hardware for Honda's Level-3 autonomous driving system was added to the list of motor vehicle equipment and is subject to the safety standards defined by Japan's Ministry of Transport. Honda's Traffic Jam Pilot must meet certain criteria, including performance requirements. 

For the performance requirements, the Level-3 system must not compromise the safety of vehicle occupants or other road users under normal driving conditions. In addition, the system cannot be activated by the driver until all required operating conditions are met.

Among the other requirements is tracking the vehicle's location, to make sure the vehicle is actually on the highway, as well as current weather and vehicle speed.

If the system encounters a situation that the vehicle software cannot handle, the driver must be warned to take over control of the vehicle. During the handoff to the driver, the autonomous driving system must continue to operate safely until the handoff is complete and the driver resumes full control.

In a situation where control cannot be handed back to the driver, the system must be able to safely stop the vehicle.

For an additional layer of safety, Honda's Level-3 automated system must include a driver monitoring function to monitor the gaze of the driver to make sure they are looking at the road ahead. The MLIT also requires that Honda include cyber security measures to prevent security threats such as unauthorized access.

In addition, the MLIT has requested that Honda display an external sticker indicating that the Legend is a Level-3 self-driving vehicle. The sticker must be affixed on the backside of the vehicle body.

Onboard Data Collection

Just like electric automaker Tesla collects data from its vehicles, the MTIL requires that Honda do the same. Japan's MLIT requires that a recording device must record data to monitor operating conditions of the automated driving hardware for a 6-month period (or 2,500 events). 

Data must be collected each time the Level-3 system is activated or switched off, including the time when the automated driving equipment was turned on or off, the time when the equipment issued a handover warning and the time when a handover back to the driver is not possible.

Honda's plans for Level-3 autonomous driving were first reported in Dec 2019. Up until then, the automaker was lagging behind its rivals in introducing semi-automated driving features for its model lineup. Now Honda will be the first to introduce a Level-3 system. 

Now Honda says it will remain dedicated to the further development of advanced safety technologies. Eventually the Level-3 automated driving technology may be available on Honda models sold in the U.S., given that a regulatory framework is in place.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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