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Honda and Toyota: Latecomers to the automated driving peloton?

Honda will bring "a beautiful, efficient, and purpose-built" AV to the Cruise network (Photo: GM)

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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Catch-up time for Japan’s automotive giants, Ford calls for a self-driving mother tongue and a head start for a new trucking start-up: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

Last week’s news was all about the German carmaker giants: BMW, Daimler and Audi/VW. Now it’s the turn of the Japanese giants, with Honda and Toyota both making recent headlines.

First up, Honda. It was announced this week that the firm will “join the party” that Cruise has apparently been having since being acquired by General Motors. And as Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt puts it: “They’re bringing chips, dip, and $2.75 billion.”

The investment means Cruise, whose mission is quite simply to bring self-driving cars to as many people as possible, is now valued at a whopping $14.6 billion. But aside from truckloads of cash, Honda is bringing design and engineering expertise as well as extended global reach to an already deeply-resourced project. Not much more to say on Cruise’s end of the deal then: but what is Honda getting from it?

The answer: a potential shortcut to autonomous driving. The idea is that Honda will build “a beautiful, efficient and purpose-built vehicle” based on Cruise's hardware and software designs; one that can be manufactured at high volume for global deployment. In other words, Honda gets to come to the party late, when the drinks are flowing and it’s in full swing.

And then we have Toyota, who has just formed a new venture with Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. (the other major backer of Cruise) with the aim of eventually deploying ride-hailing and self-driving car technologies on a global scale. According to Bloomberg, Monet Technologies Corp. doesn’t plan to develop the cars per se, but rather “focus on business applications utilizing them.” Things like meal-delivery vehicles, hospital shuttles and mobile offices. SoftBank will bring 2 billion yen ($17.5 million) to the table initially, with up to 10 billion yen available as needed thereafter.

While Japan has ambitious visions, it is widely thought that they are playing catch-up to their German or American counterparts. And when you’re playing catch-up, to me, there are only two things to do: find a shortcut or find a backer with very deep pockets.

Sorry, I don’t speak ‘Ford’

There’s a reason that all cars on the road these days use a variety of lights (brake, indicators, etc.) positioned in roughly the same place to indicate intent: road users know exactly where to look. It’s a universal language so to say – which is what Ford is calling for when it comes to self-driving cars.

Indicating intent: it’s a pretty en vogue topic right now, with Apple’s rear-facing “countdown indicator” and Drive.ai’s four external screens featuring here recently. And lest we forget Land Rover’s creepy cars with eyes. No matter the means, the end is well intentioned: to gain the trust of other road users. And I fully support this. But Ford’s point is, this is will not be possible if all cars have a different visual cue.

Ford sees its "light bar" system as the mother tongue for automated vehicles (Photo: Ford)

Hence issuing a memorandum of understanding asking the industry to create “a signalling standard for cars capable of at least SAE Level 4 automation”: basically, a language that everyone, everywhere can speak. Is this just an altruistic act for the greater good? Well, given that Ford already has a tried and tested white light system which it must fancy as the mother tongue, it’s hard to say. Anyhow, it’s the old standardization conundrum: does it stifle creativity? Possibly. But safety comes first. And anyway, how creative does a right-turn signal need to be? 

Out of the darkness…and into the mix

This week saw a new autonomous trucking start-up emerge out of stealth. New by name perhaps, but not to the game. Indeed Ike’s founders are alumni of all the usual suspects: Google, Apple, Otto and Uber. And that seasoned industry knowledge shines through in the clever approach it is choosing to take.

The firm is devoted to making highway trucking autonomous. But then, so are many others. The development of autonomous trucks and platooning is well underway so again, it’s a case of playing catch-up. But the team has a plan.

The seasoned pros behind Ike: Woodrow (CEO), Sun (Chief Engineer) and van den Berg (CTO). (Photo: Ike)

Instead of building its own autonomous vehicle software, it will license from another relatively new start-up: Nuro. Best known so far for its driverless delivery trials with US supermarket retailer Kroger, Nuro will provide the underlying software architecture, which Ike engineers will then adapt to trucks. Ike’s Chief Engineer Nancy Sun reckons this will save about two years and 50 to 60 employees’ worth of work: yet another realization that the pressure is on and if you’re not part of the peloton by now – you better cozy up to someone who is. 

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                         

René Tellers

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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