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Honda seeks data prowess in Google partnership

Usually self-sufficient carmaker wary of falling behind in self-driving race

An automated minivan from Waymo, the newly independent self-driving project formerly run by Google.

TOKYO/PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Honda Motor aims to shore up its weaknesses in a race that hinges on massive volumes of data by teaming up with the Google research unit for self-driving cars.

The Japanese automaker is in talks with Waymo, the newly independent project owned by Google parent Alphabet. Honda has previously partnered with U.S. automaker General Motors to develop fuel cell vehicles, and with Softbank Group on artificial intelligence. Under this latest deal to develop fully driverless cars, Waymo and Honda would share data collected from proof-of-concept tests in four U.S. cities.

Honda already plans to put a car on the market with highway-capable self-driving technology by 2020, with the fully driverless vehicles to come after. It has collaborated with Google previously on software connecting cars to smartphones, and this shared past smoothed negotiations.

"We're approaching development with an open mind," said Honda President Takahiro Hachigo.

His company has stayed faithful to the self-reliant spirit of founder Soichiro Honda, setting itself apart from the myriad alliances in the industry. But it cannot deny changing times. Honda has engine and body technology in spades, but little in the way of the software or AI knowledge needed for self-driving vehicles. The automaker feared being left in the dust as competition heated up among specialized developers.

Estimates say a company needs 10 billion kilometers' worth of driving data to ensure that autonomous car technology can handle unforeseen circumstances. This figure is a hurdle that Honda would struggle to clear by itself.

The precise research and scope of data that Honda and Waymo would share has not been decided. But if Honda can access the kind of research methods and data-processing technology that Google is known for, it would be a boon to autonomous vehicle development.

Google has its own reasons for wanting the deal. It would rather focus on software, its strong point, than build cars. This same strategy won it a roughly 80% share of the global smartphone operating system market. To get its self-driving business up and running quickly, however, the help of a full carmaker would be indispensable.

Before Honda, Google also agreed to conduct joint research with U.S.-European automaker Fiat Chrysler. A source confided that Honda would not be Waymo's last partner.

Nor is Honda tied exclusively to Google. In 2011, the Japanese company turned a Silicon Valley research center into a point of contact with the technology world there. It has provided technicians and vehicles to a number of ventures for car-mounted technology. By contract, these companies would install their systems in Honda vehicles before others if their research hits the product stage.

To get fully driverless cars on the road quickly, Honda will need to hone its ability to evaluate a wide range of outside knowledge.

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