It’s been 16 years since the debut of Honda’s Asimo robot. By now, millions of people around the world have seen Asimo and its offspring at trade shows and on television. The robot is still capable of drawing a crowd wherever it is found especially since it is not only capable of walking and running but also of recognizing faces and gestures and interacting with humans.
It is no surprise that Honda is also a leader in factory automation. But it looks like creating humanoid robots and automating factories is way easier than creating robotic self-driving cars now that Honda has turned to Alphabet spinoff Waymo for assistance in that department. The company is already getting an artificial intelligence helping hand from SoftBank. SoftBank is helping Honda develop the NeuV which will be introduced at CES 2017 in two weeks.
The Honda NeuV automated commuter vehicle
Honda’s outreach to Waymo is a huge endorsement of the newly sprung Alphabet refugee. It is one thing for Waymo to marry its self-driving car technology with 100 of FCA’s Pacifica mini-vans. It is quite another to be called to assist a leader in robotic technology to support that company’s internal development. The result of Honda-Waymo talks remain to be seen.
But it is an indication of the magnitude of the automated driving challenge. Multiple automated vehicle wannabees have stumbled including Tesla (multiple fatal crashes), GM (still refining Level 2 Supercruise), and Uber (San Francisco test vetoed by California).
Honda has graduated from making motorcycles and cars (and generators) to making commercial jets, a transportation space where inter-vehicle communications and collision avoidance are already solved problems. Most pilots wave off the prospect of self-driving cars unless they are true Level 4 with no driver control whatsoever. Pilots know the sky is far more forgiving than the land when it comes to transportation safety.
HondaJets with over-the-wing mounted engines
The winner of the race to full automotive automation will be the company with the most data and the most miles driven and Waymo is head and shoulders above the competition. While car makers continue to develop and test their vehicles on test tracks and mini-city mock-ups, Waymo is out riding the real roads gathering real data and putting miles between itself and the competition – albeit at about 25-30 miles per hour.
Honda R&D’s Waymo talks are significant because Honda is one of the most creative companies in the world when it comes to thinking outside or inside the mobility box. Having gotten its start in motorcycles, for example, Honda will be showing robotic motorcycle developments at CES 2017.
Honda has also been fielding an array of personal mobility systems for use at airports, factories, shopping malls and company and college campuses. These, too, could benefit from automation. (The Uni-Cub is reminiscent of Tumi’s ride-able luggage concept.) By day two of CES 2017 attendees will be longing for their own personal Uni-Cub.
For a company as innovative as Honda to reach out to Waymo suggests Waymo’s path to market may be as self-driving car training wheels for car makers desperate to play catch-up. Why pay $1B for some unproven start-up and bring some lunatic entrepreneur into your touchy, corporate, hide-bound organization when you can license a self-driving car data set and get your vehicles on the road along with the 20 other licensed self-driving car testers in California.
Or maybe, like Uber, you hunt for a more accommodating venue such as Arizona for your testing activities – at least until someone gets hurt. No, Waymo has you over a barrel Mr. Carmaker at least until you can get more of your cars fitted with the proper array of sensors and you can start gathering data on your own – as Toyota intends to do…eventually.
Until then, not even the robot dreams of Honda will be enough to cross the bridge to automated driving. If Honda and Waymo come to terms does it mean Honda surrenders its own development resources and algorithms, not really. But the licensing of Waymo data opens yet another door to potential automotive industry dominance for Alphabet. (Insert ominous background music, thunder and lightning and boogeyman references HERE.)
Waymo’s willingness to license, though, raises the question of Tesla Motors’ willingness to share its data. Tesla has shared a lot, but is likely to hold its high speed autopilot data set closely – especially now that it has separated from Mobileye. Even if Tesla were to share, would car makers dare? Tesla’s autopilot performance thus far has been both mind-blowing and terrifying.
The irony is that Waymo was created out of Alphabet’s impatience for a payoff. Waymo itself is hoping to leverage the impatience of car companies, like Honda, for an off-the-shelf and on-the-road automated driving solution. The automotive world will be watching Honda…and Waymo…and Tesla.
Honda’s Haneda Robotics Lab