Honda merges into autonomous traffic

An autonomous Acura RLX approaches a mannequin during one of Honda’s self-driving demonstrations at the GoMentum Station.

CONCORD, Calif. — In a secretive decommissioned Navy base here in the rolling hills just northwest of San Francisco, a dummy stands next to a duffel bag in the road as an autonomous Acura RLX careens toward it.

As the car approaches, it purposefully steers around the static mannequin and back into its lane, before coming to a stop at an intersection. The dummy is unharmed, thanks to a collection of cameras and sensors affixed to the roof and bumpers of the test vehicle.

This was just one of several demonstrations last week by Honda at the GoMentum Station, a 2,100-acre autonomous-vehicle testing site with 20 miles of cracked roads, bridges and faux cityscapes that’s off-limits to the general public.

Ostensibly, the event was to highlight Honda’s progress in developing and testing autonomous vehicles. But it also served as another reminder that after years of distractions and doubt, Honda is keen to reassert itself as a leader in innovation.

Historically Honda has favored a quiet approach while it developed next-generation vehicles and technologies. But that was before several years of global quality issues, the ongoing Takata airbag crisis and a management reshuffle that put Takahiro Hachigo at the head of Honda Motor Co. last June.

In the wake of that upheaval, Hachigo has pushed the automaker to do some soul-searching and, in particular, to recapture the spirit of innovation that once made the company famous.

Honda is also trying to grab more attention while it does so.

This is why Honda hosted an open house last summer when it moved its Silicon Valley-based Honda Research Institute into new digs. It’s also why a dummy in a polo shirt was staring down a self-driving RLX in front of a group of journalists last week.

Honda, long a pioneer in robotics and crash protection, has been largely and conspicuously absent from the autonomous-vehicle conversation, while companies such as General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and even Volvo have emerged as the pacesetters. Toyota, for its part, is investing heavily in safety and mobility research and making acquisitions to rapidly beef up its presence in robotics and artificial intelligence. And BMW is refocusing its i subbrand on autonomous technology rather than electric vehicles.

Looking to emerge as more of a player in self-driving — particularly among mainstream brands — Honda has said that by 2020 it wants its suite of semiautonomous features to evolve to enable its vehicles to handle freeway driving on their own. Toyota and Nissan have outlined similar timelines.

Hachigo: Recapture spirit of innovation.

“2020 is a key target, the year when we expect to put autonomous driving technology into practical use on highways,” said Jim Keller, chief engineer for autonomous vehicles at Honda R&D Americas. The system will allow cars to automatically merge, change lanes and exit. “Essentially it’s on-ramp to off-ramp automation.” 

While Keller and others at Honda were vague about whether this meant the Honda brand itself or its premium Acura arm in the U.S., he hinted that the timetable was for Honda-branded vehicles and spoke of democratizing the technology across its lineup. (Besides, Acura is largely limited to the U.S. and China.) 

“The idea is to bring these technologies to customers at a reasonable price,” Keller said. 

While a 2020 timetable would put Honda in a league with many of its mainstream competitors, waiting until then to add self-driving abilities to Acura vehicles would set the premium brand even farther behind its peers. 

Tesla’s Model S has robust automation on the highway today, while other luxury land yachts such as Mercedes-Benz’s S class and Audi’s A8 aren’t far behind. Cadillac’s Super Cruise system is slated to roll out in its CT6 sedan next year. 

Acura is handicapped because the brand’s lineup only reaches as high as the middling RLX, a sedan that peaks at about $ 67,000 and has failed to find an enthusiastic audience. 

This sets Acura apart from nearly every other premium brand because it lacks a high-dollar flagship on which it can showcase gee-whiz automation technologies long before they’re economical for the mass market. 

“By mid-2017, having some form of assisted highway driving in premium brands will be something that consumers will expect,” Xavier Mosquet, senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, told Automotive News. “And it will be as important as other comfort and engine features.”

“If you don’t have it, you’re going to be totally out of the market,” he added. 

And feeling like a dummy standing in the middle of the road.

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