The company is pushing researchers to find ways to make its cars smarter about detecting pedestrians, determining which cars may cut in front of you, and eventually using vehicle-to-vehicle communication to keep cars from crashing.
Honda CEO Takanobu Ito said the automaker is trying to balance its commitment to safety with its culture of proving fun-to-drive cars.
"Our philosophy is that the cars should not be controlling the driver, the driver should enjoy driving," Ito said in a small group interview with journalists at Honda's research and development facility in the Tochigi prefecture, Japan. "At the same time, we are happy to develop technology that helps assist drivers be safer drivers."
In other words, don't expect Honda to develop driverless cars. They'll leave that to the Googles of the world.
The automaker is focusing its efforts now on preventing pedestrian crashes – because those have the highest fatality rates – and rear-end crashes, because those are the most frequent accident type.
We got to test drive some of the technologies at Honda's annual meeting. The automaker is hoping it will bring some of these tools to Japan and the U.S. in 2 to 3 years.
Here's what they've already got in the works:
Pedestrian detection: Many automakers are already working on this kind of technology, with mixed results. Cars use cameras or radar technology to sense when a person-shaped thing is walking in the road. The car will brake to help avoid the crash.
Honda is trying to up the game in pedestrian avoidance systems by having its system work at higher speeds. Other systems tend to work only up to 30 to 40 mph; Honda's will bring its cars to a full stop even if the car is going 50 mph when it detects someone crossing the road.
Green light timer: Honda calls this simple-but-smart technology "Green Wave Driving Support System." It's essentially a visual timer that lets drivers know how fast they should drive to make sure they make it to the next light while it's still green.
Many drivers go too fast in between lights, wasting gas as they accelerate and then stepping hard on the brakes when they need to stop. The green light system shows a green bar along the speedometer, letter drivers know they should go, say, 35 to 45 mph between lights to make sure they get to the next one while it's green.
It also has a countdown bar on the speedometer that tells the driver how much longer until a red light turns green.
Honda said it believes the green light timer will save gas and prevent rear-end collisions, because people won't need to slam on the brakes as often.
Adaptive cruise control with cut-in detection: Adaptive cruise control is still a pretty rough technology. Although it does a fabulous job of keeping space between cars by adjusting vehicle speed, it only senses the car in front of it. So if a car cuts into your lane, your car will brake suddenly and heavily, which could result in a rear-end crash.
Honda's cut-in prediction adaptive cruise control senses six cars on the road in front of it across multiple lanes, judging their speed and size. If, for example, there is a slow-moving truck in the lane to your right, it can sense if a faster-moving car suddenly comes up on the right and will predict that that car will turn quickly into your lane. The car will ease off the gas or slowly engage the brake to let the car slow down slightly.
Further down the line, Honda plans to introduce radars that can detect whether motorcycles are heading into a driver's path (another segment of car crashes that ends up in high fatalities), vehicle-to-vehicle communications that could prevent intersection crashes, steering control through cruise control that would keep a car in its lane, and head-on collision avoidance.