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What's it like in a driverless car? We test Honda's autonomous Accord

Honda is pushing forward with its autonomous driving technology, and invited us to try it at the firm’s proving grounds in Tochigi, Japan.

If the idea of autonomous cars doesn’t appeal to you, just consider two things; firstly, how much of your week is spent driving and therefore leaving you unable to do anything else? And secondly what proportion of vehicle accidents are down to drive error – the answer being the vast majority of them. Self-driving cars could solve both of these problems. Numerous firms are experimenting with driverless car technology, including the folks at Honda, who invited us out to its proving ground in Japan to try it for ourselves.

The Venue

Honda arranged a number of demonstrations to showcase its thinking on the subject but it was the fully-automated Accord that provided the most fascinating experience. The purpose-built test arena may not have looked especially challenging but it packed a number of different hazards into a small space.

The Tech

The autonomous Accord combines radar, a pair of cameras, wifi and the automatic braking and acceleration systems already seen in the production Accord, so the actual hardware isn’t as revolutionary as you might expect. The crucial element is the software that ties them all in together and interprets all the data in order to balance the need to make forward progress with the essential requirement of not crashing in to anything.

For example, the intelligent active cruise control can monitor up to six cars in front rather than just the one, and uses clever software to anticipate possibly problems and be ready to respond.

The Experience

Sat in the back with only a supervisor sat in the driver’s seat in case of emergency, it’s a slightly surreal experience. The destination is already programmed and with only a single prompt the car sets off on its way.

The tight urban environment means speeds are low but the hazards don’t let up. First there’s a pedestrian waiting at a crossing, which is detected by the car's radar and video camera; the Accord pauses while they cross and then carries on without any fuss.

Then there is an ‘urban vehicle’ wanting to cross at a junction, but this time it’s a wifi connection that makes the magic happen, with the other vehicle communicating its intentions so the Accord knows and can give priority where required.

Immediately after there’s a surprise – a hooligan biker coming up the outside of the Accord at speed, but its blind-spot warning system intervenes and slows it down, giving the biker room to pass.

Unsurprisingly the Accord completes the course without hiccup but it operates seamlessly and without hesitation, and the way it blends the different technologies is very impressive.

What Next?

There’s an understandable reluctance to stick a flag in a date and declare when autonomous cars will be completely live, but they might be closer than you think. Elements of the autonomous package will become more commonplace over the next five years but the biggest hurdle for a completely self-controlling vehicle is, as always, the lawyers.

Legislation is a massive hurdle to be overcome – arguably greater than the technical challenges – but once this is cracked we can all look forward to a world where there are few accidents and more time to work and relax whilst behind the wheel. In theory…

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