Takahiro Hachigo, CEO of Honda Motor Company, sat down for a year-end interview with Automotive News Europe recently to share his views on the future of the auto industry. His take? More efficient manufacturing, more autonomous driving systems, and pistons — lots and lots of pistons. The future of motoring is about efficiency, Hachigo-san believes, and hybrid powertrains are what he sees as the route to that efficiency. By 2030, he expects two-thirds of the cars his company manufactures to be hybrids. He makes no mention of them having plugs.
“I believe hybrid vehicles will play a critical role. The objective is not electrification, per se, but improving fuel efficiency. And we believe hybrid vehicles are the way to abide by different environmental regulations.”
On the subject of battery electric vehicles, he asked, “Are there really customers who truly want them? I’m not so sure because there are lots of issues regarding infrastructure and hardware. I do not believe there will be a dramatic increase in demand for battery vehicles and I believe this situation is true globally. There are different regulations in different countries, and we have to abide by them. So it’s a must to continue r&d. But I don’t believe it will become mainstream anytime soon.”
Obviously, Tesla and Volkswagen disagree. There is no way to settle the argument other than to let things play out and let Adam Smith’s “unseen hand” work its magic. That process should begin next year when the Tesla Model Y electric SUV goes up against the Honda CR-V Hybrid. CleanTechnica stalwarts will be disheartened by Hachigo’s attitude, which seems too timid to embrace the challenges presented by an overheating world, particularly since internal combustion engines are a significant factor in the rise in global temperatures.
On a personal note, I am hugely disappointed in Honda’s position. 50 years ago, it was a startup company that was laughed at for its diminutive vehicles that got incredible gas mileage. I owned one of the first Civics sold in the US. While all my friends were waiting in long lines at gas stations, I was buzzing around wherever I pleased.
A few years later, I traded it for a first generation Accord, a car that transported me to Florida and Nova Scotia on vacation while allowing me to win TSD rallies and autocrosses. It was truly an amazing car and I have had a soft spot for Honda products ever since.
My wife currently owns a Civic Si with the much ballyhooed i-VTEC engine and 6-speed manual. Most of the time, it is a mild-mannered city car, but when I tromp on the loud pedal, it hurls itself forward with alacrity as the little red lights on the dash come on to show the variable cam timing system is working as intended.
But Honda lost its way recently. Its CR-Z hybrid sports car looked flashy but lacked the performance to match its bold styling. The quirky Insight was super efficient but too weird for most drivers. The Civic Hybrid was beset with technical issue and became a marketing disaster. Where Toyota raced to the front of the hybrid pack, Honda fell back into obscurity.
Its current cars rely on turbocharged 3-cylinder engines coupled to continuously variable transmissions to get the job done. Efficient they may be, but they are about as exciting as driving a bowl full of vanilla pudding.
Nevertheless, Honda, under the guidance of Takahiro Hachigo, will make efficiency the touchstone of its corporate existence going forward. As it introduces a new global platform for its cars beginning next year, it seeks to cut development times by a third and improve manufacturing efficiency by 10%. Woo-hoo!
Autonomous driving systems are also a priority for Honda, which recently invested in Cruise, the AV startup now owned by General Motors. But once again, the company’s approach to autonomy is timid, as if it is peering over the edge of an abyss and not liking what it sees below.
“Honda’s overarching objective is to make cars accident free. To achieve this, we need to reduce human error from human decision making, and we need to relieve driving fatigue and make driving more comfortable. Thus, we are focusing on Honda Sensing, and we will improve each and every element of Honda Sensing as we go forward.
“Right now, concerning the technologies, we have well-established expertise in automatic lane changing and also in hands-off steering. We have established these technologies, but at the same time, you have to think about what the social demand is and what legal environment we have to operate in. Now is the time for us to ponder how we can introduce these services to the market. We are looking at the right timing and the right vehicle model.
“Our plan is to cascade Honda Sensing down to mass market models such as the Civic and Accord. Instead of going for a setup that requires expensive radars or lidars, we would like to develop these functions in an affordable price range. When it comes to Level 3, you will need a more expensive ADAS system to realize this. We will be cautious in trying to identify what vehicle model will be optimal for this. So, I don’t have any timeline or any vehicles decided for Level 3 autonomous driving.”
“Time for us to ponder.” “We will be cautious.” Those phrases define Honda’s corporate culture at present. It is unlikely Elon Musk ever ponders or makes caution his default position. Who knows? Maybe Hachigo-san is right. Maybe Tesla and other manufacturers who are jumping into manufacturing electric cars in a big way will run into a brick wall of customer resistance and implode. It could happen.
Soichiro Honda, the man who founded the company that bears his name, never took such a timid approach to the future. He propelled Honda onto the world stage with a bold gamble on Formula One competition in the 1960s. The jewel-like engines from Honda made the other engines in the field look like holdovers from the pre-war era, which they were.
The history of commerce is littered with the carcasses of companies that changed the world, and then became resistant to change. Honda may well be the next to join the pantheon of once great companies that are now little more than echoes in the well of history. If the company is right and piston power is to be the norm for decades to come, the human race will be seeing the face of eternity sooner rather than later and that’s the reality that Takahiro Hachigo refuses to face.
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