Just a bit before this website was even born, honking and screaming into the world, Honda and Sony soul-bonded via a Memorandum of Understanding for Strategic Alliance in Mobility Field, or, in people talk, they’re going to work together to build electric cars. More recently we’ve learned that these cars will be arriving by 2026, with sales starting in the United States and Japan. Even more interesting are statements made by representatives of the companies that hint at building semi-automated vehicles with “new ways to enjoy and spend time in the cabin space,” which includes whomever is in the driver’s seat. This suggests, at least to me, some really bad ideas regarding semi-automated vehicles. I better explain.
The joint company is known as Sony Honda Mobility (SHM), has yet to release any details on what the EVs themselves may be like, if they will be built on existing Honda platforms (I’d bet so) or pricing or how they’ll be branded or anything like that, but they have talked a bit about the sorts of interesting contributions from the Sony side, which will include software systems and sensors and other related technology for the automated driving systems for the car, which are said to include both Level 2 semi-automated driving and the highly confusing Level 3 conditional automated driving.
Sony Honda Mobility president Izumi Kawanishi tells of goals for the joint venture’s products (emphasis mine):
“As safe driving technology will continue to evolve and the amount of concentration required to drive will be reduced, we should consider new ways to enjoy and spend time in the cabin space as a whole.”
Now, Kawanishi isn’t wrong per se, in that as things evolve and technology around automated driving advances, yes, the amount of concentration required to drive absolutely will be reduced, but based on the goals stated by SHM, as listed in their press release
“SHM aims to develop Level 3 automated drive under limited conditions and to enable Level 2+ driver assistance in even more situations such as urban driving.”
…neither of the driving automation levels mentioned – Level 3 or Level 2+, which is a made-up bullshit thing that’s not really part of the admittedly flawed SAE Autonomy Levels – is what you would need to actually not pay attention to driving and “enjoy and spend time in the cabin space.”
The press release goes on to specify a bit more about the sorts of entertainment options that SHM is planning on offering, describing it as
A new HMI*3 [Editor’s Note: that means Human Machine Interface – JT] will be introduced, providing a personalized in-car experience through cloud-service connectivity, realizing entertainment beyond driving.
– SHM aims to evolve mobility space into entertainment and emotional space, by seamlessly integrating real and virtual worlds, and exploring new entertainment
So, “real and virtual worlds” sounds like some pretty immersive stuff, exactly the kind of thing a car with L2 or L3 automation should not be offering to its drivers.
Let’s break it down really quick: Level 2 semi-automation requires a driver to be alert and ready to take over at all times. It doesn’t matter one slimy bit how good or full-featured the system is, if it’s designed to be a Level 2 system, then the driver is always a crucial part of the operating loop. They may need to take control with no warning. They can’t be fucking around in “virtual worlds.”
Level 3 is actually much worse than Level 2, perversely. This is because as flawed as Level 2 semi-automation is – and it absolutely is, deeply and inherently, as a recent IIHS study reminded us all – Level 3 is even worse, because Level 3 is fundamentally and deeply confusing.
I’ve covered this in painful detail in an earlier article, but I’ll recap for you here really quickly. Essentially, here’s how the SAE defines Level 3 automation:
“You are not driving when these automated driving features are engaged – even if you are seated in “the drivers seat.”
and, crucially, Level 3 also includes this:
“When the feature requests, you must drive.”
The problem here is that this sets up the sort of paradox that makes evil computers explode when they try to rationalize it. Level 3 says it does the driving, not you, unless it somehow needs you to drive, in which case, you must. But no one so far has defined the conditions that may require a human takeover, or what sort of time you may have to prepare, or what the system will do should the driver be unresponsive, perhaps lost in a delightfully erotic virtual world.
Nobody knows jack feces about exactly how Level 3 could actually work, and yet here is Honda and Sony, already planning for exciting virtual reality escapism while you whiz down the highway.
They’re doing it backwards. Really, the whole industry is, because if anyone has figured out an answer to how Level 3 is going to deal with the handoff to a human, they’ve kept it pretty quiet, and autonomy experts I’ve consulted have told me that “everyone is just guessing.”
If SHM has some solution to this scenario, I’d love to hear it: You’re driving on a highway, and have engaged the Level 3 system. You turn on one of those virtual world entertainment whatevers that have been teased, and get really, really into it. While this is happening, let’s say road conditions degrade to the point where the cameras can no longer identify lane markings, or perhaps a bird shits over a crucial sensor, or maybe a rock from a gravel truck takes a side camera out.
It doesn’t really matter what, there’s so many options here, just say that something causes the computer to decide it needs the human to take over. But you’re absolutely not paying attention, because you’re about to get to sixth base with a mermaid. So what does the car do? Does it just stop, in the middle of a lane, like an idiot? I hope not.
Does it pull over? If so, how, especially if its automated driving system has been somehow impaired. Does it call for help from surrounding vehicles or infrastructure?
The point is, I don’t know, and so far I’ve seen zero evidence anyone knows. I reached out to SHM for comment on this sort of situation, and I’ll report what they tell me as soon as I find out. Maybe they have this all solved! If so, that would be a huge deal, and I’ll be the first to sing – no, scream their praises.
Until then, I have to say I feel like even talking about in-car entertainment options in the context of the reduced concentration demanded of the driver is foolish, even dangerous. This is not the problem that needs to be solved. First, figure out how the hell Level 3 handoffs or failovers are supposed to work, then work on letting the driver play immersive Roblox or whatever.
Honestly, it seems absurd this even has to be said. But here we are.