Last year, Honda shocked the automotive world by leapfrogging prominent luxury automakers to market with functional Level 3 self-driving technology. It’s a complicated subject, because Audi actually had the first system a few years before but had never activated it due to legal issues regarding its use. Therein lies the problem – it is not enough to have the technology. It has to work in the real world, and that’s easier said than done.
All eyes are currently on Honda, as it is the only automaker with a Tier 3 model operating on public roads. The top-of-the-line Legend sedan gained approval for the technology last year in Japan, where it can be used on 90% of Japanese highways according to Automotive News. As a reminder, Level 3 systems promise hands-free, eyes-closed driving, although the driver must be ready to take control at all times. In Honda’s case, the system (called Honda Sensing Elite) serves as a handy assist for busy stop-and-go traffic, as it’s only available below 31 mph. But you have to go at least 18 mph before you can engage it.
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Automotive News details a recent trip to Japanese highways in a caption with Honda Sensing Elite that wasn’t terribly impressive. During a 90-minute road test, the correct settings to engage the system were only encountered once, and it didn’t last long before speeds exceeded the 31 mph limit. Additionally, the system cannot work on roads with tighter bends, and Honda has reportedly advised drivers against eating or even wearing sunglasses while using the technology.
Tier 3 is a strange middle ground in the race for cars with full, reliable range. Current vehicles with Level 2 systems still require constant driver input, functioning as an assist versus true autonomous driving. Level 4 gives the vehicle control in almost any situation, although a driver can still drive at any time. Level 3 becomes the all-in-one solution that doesn’t do anything particularly well, and this recent campaign in Japan seems to support that conclusion.
Buyers in Japan might also be unconvinced. Production on Legends with the Level 3 Honda Sensing Elite system is capped at 100, but around 80 have been sold so far. We suspect companies such as Mercedes-Benz, which recently won international approval for its own Level 3 system, will be watching Honda’s success – or potential lack thereof – in Japan very closely.