Weekly Brief: Cautious Honda Still First to the Level 3 Table

Honda has launched the world’s first production car with certified Level 3 self-driving technology.

It goes by the name of the Honda Legend Hybrid EX and is a four-door sedan that can accelerate, brake, monitor its surroundings, switch lanes and pass vehicles during highway driving, all without human input. It does require drivers to stay engaged and has a camera behind the steering wheel to monitor their attention. In this respect, the Honda Sensing Elite technology that powers the Legend is nearly identical to its closest Level 2 competitors, Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac SuperCruise.

Where the Legend differs from the competition, and what distinguishes it as Level 3 technology, is a feature called Traffic Jam Pilot. During heavy congestion, drivers can flip on Traffic Jam Pilot mode and completely disengage from the driving function. They don’t have to monitor their surroundings. The infotainment screen switches into entertainment mode with movies, TV shows and social media feeds. Drivers can do whatever they want, so long as they are available to respond if the car needs them. Once the traffic clears and the car speeds up, Traffic Jam Pilot disengages and the driver takes back over.

Bringing the Legend to market gives Honda some serious “world first” bragging rights. Audi tried since 2017 to bring a Level 3 production car to market with its A8, which featured a similar traffic assist feature. Ultimately Audi abandoned its attempts in the face of a regulatory impasse in both Europe and America and fears over being found at fault in the event of an accident. Mercedes-Benz is poised to launch its S-Class sedan with Drive Pilot, which will function just like Honda’s Traffic Jam Pilot and qualify as Level 3 autonomous tech but isn’t due out until summer 2021 in Germany.

Honda’s first-to-market edge comes with significant caveats. The carmaker is only releasing 100 Legends and has no plans to increase that number any time soon. Those 100 vehicles will only be available in Japan, where they won’t be sold, only leased, for a retail price of $102,000. The Level 3 component of Honda Sensing Elite tops off at 31mph. Honda says that it plans to proceed with extreme caution, even with the blessings of the Japanese government, which is keen to see Japan’s aging population benefit from the autonomous vehicle revolution.

Tesla, on the other hand, continues to show no signs of caution. Elon Musk announced last week that he will double the size of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving beta test program with its new 8.2 software upgrade. Roughly 1000 drivers have participated in the beta program since October 2020. Musk would like to see that number increase tenfold by the time the 8.3 update goes out. The technology still requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times but Musk said his AV tech is maturing rapidly. Given his brazen attitude and proclivity for pushing the edge, no matter the regulations he’s up against, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be more Level 3 Teslas on the road come 2022 than Hondas and Mercedes combined.

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