Sony And Honda’s New Company Is Centered Around Autonomous-Driving Technology No One Has Figured Out

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

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24 Responses

  1. …you’re about to get to sixth base with a mermaid-

    And suddenly her sultry voice is interrupted by a loud electronic beeping, the screen turns bright, solid red except for the single word DRIVE, and just as quickly the gauges take over the screen and the in-cabin beeping replaced by piped-in simulated IC engine noise (old-school VTEC since this is a Honda). If the three or so seconds the alarm phase takes isn’t long enough to snap you out of your fishy reverie as evidenced by you grabbing the wheel, then more severe failover protocols kick in.

  2. “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 makes sense.

    Much progress is apparently being made in this area but I don’t expect autonomous vehicles to advance to a point where I would be comfortable riding in one in my lifetime (I am 76).

      1. I’m about the same age as you, and while I can envision a day that I MIGHT be able to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle, there is a ton of work that needs done first, and a lot of it will need to come from the government. V2V and V2I communication needs standardized, and then implemented; automakers need to get on board with actively implementing those standards, and government agencies need to pony up on infrastructure spending for V2I.

        Wait, I think I just talked myself into your viewpoint…

    1. Picture this: the year is 2040, you steal a Kia using the USB cord for you iphone 47 and set the stage 10 autopilot Xtreme 4 so the car is in self driving mode. You decide to throw on your meta be goggles and get in some multiplayer GTA V as the latest expansion lets you rob the homeless. You unlock a new achievement, playing GTA while committing GTA.

  3. This partnership is super fucking lame. On the one hand I like that EVs are allowing new players to upset the status quo(see the Genesis vs EQE Car and Driver comparo). On the other hand we get dumb shit like this. Who had Honda/Sony car on their 2022 bingo card?

  4. I was going to say i thought Honda were smarter than this.
    Hopefully they have the sense to do this step by step. If they hold off spending large amounts until Sony proves it can be done, that would be an acceptable risk

  5. Many years ago, for a creative writing class, I wrote a couple of sci-fi stories about technology run amok, mostly dealing with voice commands that were taken too literally. The company that I came up with that caused all the problems? Sony-Honda Corporation. Creeeeeeeeepy……

  6. The blurring lines of car companies and tech companies is already here.

    Lexus has commercials out right now, this very moment, where the entirety of said commercial is them telling you that their cars have Apple CarPlay. No mention of any features that the vehicle has other than car play.

    The next twenty years are going to be painfully stupid, far more so that the past twenty years.

  7. If we have learned anything from the great and powerful Musk it is to succeed at making EVs megafriggin successfully it is over promise and never deliver. It doesn’t cost anything and creates its own hype. That being said if L2 can keep me logged in to Autopian for more than 10 minutes I say it’s a win.

  8. This’ll be great when your custom instrument cluster skin that you bought with a microtransaction fails to sync with the cloud service properly while you’re screaming down the highway, and the car responds by power cycling itself

  9. It’s extremely disappointing that companies continue to live the lie, just because they have already put too much money into the dream that is turning to a nightmare.

    It’s also fascinating to see how the automotive industry continue to ignore research from other domains on automation’s effect on humans, and consequently, how to use it. It’s no news that draining a person of tasks and then suddenly expecting him/her to regain control of a vehicle is a terrible, terrible idea. We already learned that decades ago from various disasters within nuclear, aviation and maritime.

  10. We’ve already failed in building Level 3 or anything greater than that. V2V/V2I was mandatory because like you say: how does the vehicle ‘see’ with one or more cameras unavailable? The car should borrow it’s neighboring infrastructure’s ‘eyes’ to safely find the shoulder. This would require the the infrastructure itself to also be rigged with sensors and cameras in the event there is no nearby vehicle, and would only work on a short term basis.

    So how’s that coming along? Oh yeah:
    https://www.theverge.com/2022/8/12/23303191/car-v2v-fcc-spectrum-wifi-court-ruling

  11. I think your concerns are generally valid, but it’s worth keeping in mind that we’re not talking about any actual car, here. All we have is some marketing bullshit. Marketers can’t actually do anything other than generate bullshit, so until the engineers have a chance to take a crack at it, we don’t know what this car will actually be. Of course, after it’s designed the marketers will get a chance to spin their webs of lies again. That’s the point where I’d start to worry.

    1. The point is that the technology for level 2 driver assistance is widely available and not too expensive. The technology for immersive entertainment is widely available and not too expensive. It will be very easy to combine the two into a widely available and not too expensive package. Which will be made available to the average person (and to paraphrase Mr Carlin, just think about how dumb the average person is then think about the fact that half of the population are even dumber than that). And for “oversight” we have, at the highest levels of govt, people who can’t define the word woman.

      1. This. There is virtually zero regulation for this stupid bullshit at this time, and automakers are in a mad rush to foist this stupid bullshit upon us, and the average car buyer can barely be bothered to safely operate a vehicle as it is.

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