Honda Takes Another Step Toward Self-Driving Cars

Honda said this week that its latest self-driving prototype, an Acura sedan, will begin testing in California. It's another step toward the company's goal of launching a self-driving vehicle by about 2020.

John Rosevear
John Rosevear
May 21, 2016 at 11:00AM

This Acura RLX has been fitted with a prototype of Honda's latest self-driving system. It will begin testing soon, Honda said this past week. Image source: Honda.

Like its biggest global rivals, Honda (NYSE:HMC) is making a point of showing off its self-driving-car development efforts. The Japanese automaker unveiled a new test vehicle fitted with the latest prototype of its "Automated Drive" system this past week. It's a modified Acura RLX sedan that will begin testing in California soon.

What makes this self-driving Acura special?

According to Honda, the new RLX test car has "a new suite of radar, Lidar, camera and GPS sensors, complemented by higher performance CPUs and GPUs, and improved cabling, heat management and circuitry." In addition, the car's software has been beefed up "to support more complex testing scenarios," the company said.

Specifically, Honda said that the new system in its latest test cars "is designed to achieve high reliability by fusing overlapping information together from various sensors." Honda may be taking a page from Tesla Motors' (NASDAQ:TSLA) book here: Tesla's Autopilot system combines fairly simplistic sensors with sophisticated software that seeks to make the best use of all of the information the car's systems gather.

Tesla's system is able to function (albeit only in limited situations) without an expensive and cumbersome LIDAR unit. "LIDAR" -- for "light detection and ranging" -- is a sensor system that uses a laser to precisely determine the car's position relative to its surroundings. It's considered a key to self-driving technology by most automakers and suppliers (as well as by potential auto industry entrants like Alphabet's Google Cars unit). 

The challenge with LIDAR is that currently available units are expensive and clunky: That's why nearly all of the self-driving test cars we've seen so far, including this latest Acura test car, have sensor apparatus on their roofs. Fortunately, LIDAR units are expected to get smaller and cheaper over the next few years. Ford (NYSE:F) has said that by the time self-driving cars go into production, it expects to be able to integrate LIDAR units made by Velodyne into its rearview mirrors. 

It's likely that Honda is thinking along the same lines.

For now, the self-driving Acura will be confined to a test facility

It may be a while before a self-driving Acura hits public roads. Honda said that the new self-driving RLX will be tested at GoMentum Station, a special testing facility near San Francisco. 

According to Honda's statement, the GoMentum facility has 20 miles of "city-like roadway grids" and "urban infrastructure," creating a realistic testing environment that doesn't require putting a prototype product on public roads. 

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But Honda was also clear that this isn't just an experiment. "This testing program is aligned with the company's goal to introduce automated driving technologies around 2020," it said in its statement.

Long story short: While it's just a test vehicle now, Honda will be gearing up to introduce self-driving Acuras before long.