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Honda to debut Japan's first 'eyes-off' self-driving car next year

Price tag of around $91,000 likely to be hurdle for Level-3 autonomous Legend

Honda's first Level-3 self-driving car, based on the luxury Legend model shown here in this 2014 photo, will give the person in the driver's seat a "hands-free" ride.  (Photo by Masayuki Terazawa)

TOKYO -- Honda Motor will release a car next summer that can pilot itself with a driver's hands off the wheel and eyes off the road -- a first for a Japanese automaker, Nikkei has learned.

The partial self-driving technology will be incorporated into the Legend, Honda's flagship luxury model. The car is expected to retail for around 10 million yen ($91,000), which would make it 40% more expensive than the standard model.

With Level-3 autonomy, the car can drive itself for extended periods, although the car warns the driver to take over when necessary. Under normal conditions, the person sitting in the driver's seat of the new Legend will not need to keep an eye on the road, leaving the "driver" free to fiddle with a smartphone or watch TV. That level of automation is categorized as Level 3 on a five-tier scale. Level 5 translates to fully autonomous driving.

Japan has already passed legislation to allow Level-3 self-driving cars on the road, with the new laws set to take effect next spring. The country wants to commercialize Level-3 technology next year.

Cost is expected to be a major barrier to the uptake of self-driving cars, which require a large number of sensors to stay in the proper lane, observe traffic signs and avoid obstacles without human intervention.

Many carmakers are working on autonomous driving, but some have run into difficulties. Audi of Germany, for instance, has developed cars with Level-3 autonomy but has not rolled out the full range of technology due to regulatory barriers.

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