Honda President Sees Limited Role for Electric Cars

By · November 30, 2011

Honda President Takanobu Ito at the Tokyo show

Honda President Takanobu Ito during a press conference with North American journalists at th2011 Tokyo Motor Show. (Photographs by Brad Berman.)

Honda’s display at the 2011 Tokyo Auto Show is full of electric car concepts. Earlier this week, international journalists were given the opportunity to drive its impressive Fit EV pure battery electric car. So, when given the opportunity to ask a single question at yesterday’s press conference with Honda President Takanobu Ito at the Tokyo show, I tried to determine if the company’s man at the top has a vision for electric cars.

I’ll let Mr. Ito speak for himself in this unedited transcript of my question and his answer.

In your earlier comments, you identified the need for Honda to be ahead of your competitors on technology, especially hybrid and electric. Nissan is projecting to have 1.5 million cumulative sales of electric cars by 2015. What do you think of this forecast, and Honda’s ability to compete with pure electric vehicles?

First of all, just because Nissan is saying it’s going to sell some 1.5 million pure EVs, Honda is not going to say that [we are] as well. Instead, our way of thinking is, for us to contribute to sustainable society, we have to think about total sales of Honda vehicles, and thereby through our products, contribute to society.

With this in mind, compared to the year 2000, we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 2020 by 30 percent. Pure battery EVs, of course, would be one means of trying to reduce CO2. I think there is no mistake about that.

I think the way people use cars is not the same across the board in all countries, so I cannot generalize. If you think about the concept EVs introduced by Honda at this Tokyo Motor Show, you see that electric cars are important. I will not deny that. But when you consider the performance of batteries, the charging times, plus the cost of batteries, I think pure EVs would be best for compact, very small cars.

Honda small commuter concept

Mr. Ito's view is that pure EV technology is best suited to very small cars, like the Micro-Commuter Concept, demonstrated outside Tokyo earlier this week.

I feel confident in saying that they could be a fit for very small vehicles. That is why last year we launched the motorcycle EV. We think we should expand on this and for mini-vehicles, an even smaller size category—the commuter car we introduced at the Tokyo Motor Show, which would be well suited for a pure EV.

Will this be acceptable in the United States? This is a question. Therefore, we are thinking of the Fit EV for the United States. But for Japan, Europe, and other parts of Asia—especially the urban areas, we think the smaller category would be an option that could be considered, if it could be easily charged and has good maneuverability. In this category, pure EVs would be appropriate.

So, we’ll start with the very small cars for the pure battery EVs. But when you think about other segments—compact cars and large vehicles—in order to contribute to sustainable society, fuel economy and reduction of CO2, I believe hybrids would be the best.

When I say hybrids, there are different types of hybrids. Honda has to think about what would be best for each of the categories. For example, we have strength in the one-motor system—a very simple IMA (Integrated Motor Assist). This is one thing that we feel is fit for this purpose. We think we can increase the number of sales, and we are preparing the next version of the IMA, trying to improve the performance.

For vehicles in the United States, say the Accord class, we have to secure sufficient motor performance. We have to further work on this to generate enough power during the driving. For this, we have to have a separate dedicated system for the Accord class and above.

If you’re talking about high-end expensive vehicles, fuel economy is not enough. It also has to be fun to drive. For that we have the SH-AWD [Honda’s new hybrid system primarily dedicated to enhancing driving dynamics]. For each class of car, there are different types of hybrids. We believe we already have the technology in our hands, and for the next 10 to 20 years, I think in order to reduce CO2, we would have to use these different technologies, of which pure battery cars are one. But proportion-wise, I think hybrids will be the largest.

What Gets His Motor Going

Honda President Takanobu Ito with the EV-STER electric car sports concept

Honda President Takanobu Ito with the EV-STER electric car sports concept at 2011 Tokyo Motor Show. (Photograph: Honda)

In the final question of the session, an American journalist followed up on the idea of Honda adding “more fun” to its vehicles—a notion that was frequently discussed in presentations to journalists in the past few days in Tokyo. The journalist mentioned Honda’s electric sports car concept on display.

“I would love to have an electric sports car, but I live in an apartment complex, so I’d have to run an extension cord across my parking lot in order to recharge it,” he said. “[Honda] used to have affordable sports coupes that were iconic around the world, the CRX, the Integra, Prelude, those cars that every man could afford that actually ran on gas. Is a car like that on the table, or does every future sports car need to have some sort of advanced powertrain. It seems like a gas powertrain might be more affordable to the masses.”

Mr. Ito broke into a smile and, for the first time in the one-hour conference, delivered his response in English—a single line: “I completely agree with you.”


· · 6 years ago

Honda = ICE. Its like AOL & Dialup. They will go down with it ...

· Brett Owen (not verified) · 6 years ago

Honda is sticking to using batteries in their Frankenstein line of small cars. :)

Honestly though, I think it would be cruel for a parent to drive their kid to school in a Micro-Commuter Concept car. What would be the point of giving them money for lunch?

· · 6 years ago

Thanks for printing the whole text. It is enlightening. So for now, any Honda EV’s will be boutique products. They are an ICE company after all. Mr. Ito knows this, and is looking after his core competency (a 1% change in ICE would eclipse 5 years of EV production). With strong demand and margin, he is in no hurry to hasten its obsolescence. Very Lutz of him. With luck, his engineering staff will ignore his complacency.

· Londo Bell (not verified) · 6 years ago

The sad truth is, at least from what I've seen/heard/analyzed so far, Honda's not really interested in EV. They had hydrogen fuel cell as the #1 zero emission priority...for a show. One can also see their efforts on hybrids (which explain, in a way, their weak sales), and the lack of ANY zero emission or green vehicle roadmap for the next 10 years.

They were a green company for the past several years because they use small displacement, high output engine. Honda believes really in the sportiness of their vehicles, and the worldwide fans are with them, especially those from Asia and Europe. No one really push Honda into making gas efficient vehicle, and in fact, the American journalist summed it all the best (that s/he wanted an affordable gasoline sport coupe, not a hybrid, and not even the CR-Z, which is an affordable, hybrid sport coupe).

· · 6 years ago

@Londo Bell "Honda believes really in the sportiness of their vehicles, and the worldwide fans are with them, especially those from Asia and Europe."

Well, Honda's largest sellers - Civic, Accord & CR-V are bland and as far away from being sporty as a car can be. In the US they are known for being reliable - not sporty.

· · 6 years ago

In the 1800's there was a company called the Columbus Buggy Company. They had a pretty successful business making and selling horse drawn buggies.

Then along came the automobile. In an attempt to survive, the Columbus Buggy Company eventually started making both ICE and EV buggies, but by the time they jumped in they did not have a competitive product. They were still using wood to build their buggies while others were using steel, etc.

So where is the Columbus Buggy Company now? Will people a century from now say "Honda who?"

· Montreal EV fan (not verified) · 6 years ago

The problem with limiting your EV line-up to only small city cars is simply this: what do you do when you suddenly find yourself competing with the Tesla Model S or the coming Infiniti EV?

Then it will be a scramble to catch up and offer a competetive large long-range EV, and you will have lost your competetive edge in this market segment.

Honda, and particularly its Acura division, will be left behind with this short-sighted strategy.

· Jason Foster (not verified) · 6 years ago

Long live Nissan. I have been a huge Honda fan for years and we proudly have bought 2 honda Fits in the past 5 years and we love them, but I am 100% convinced electric is the way to go. Of course I might settle for an elctric motorcycle so that is an interesting point...

· · 6 years ago

80% of LEAF buyers have never owned a Nissan before...

· RobF (not verified) · 6 years ago

Next up, Honda makes bet on horse and buggies as cars of the future.

· · 6 years ago

What if Honda, due to the tsunami only has enough money and manufacturing capability left to make either gas cars or electric. That being the case, it's cheaper and a fairly guaranteed sell to continue with tried and true gas cars. Perhaps then in time, when finances and other things are back to normal, electric Civics and Accords will arrive.

That's about the best defense I can dream up. Eventually they'll probably be stuck having to pay Nissan to build rebranded EVs for them - until they can get their own act together. It's not the end of the world, but it may be a little embarrasing.

alt-e: I may loosely be part of that statistic. I've owned Honda Civic's since our yellow 1985 Nissan pickup died. Well, to be fair it didn't die. It had 200k miles and needed a new clutch. We sold it for $550 in 1997. The guy replaced the clutch in our driveway and drove off with a perfectly good truck. Not sure why we switch to Honda, but we started replacing our clutches after that. :D

Before that it was all Datsun B210's. When I do finally get a Leaf, I'll have to throw a Datsun/Nissan reunion party, for the uh, Datsun Leaf. hehe :)

· · 6 years ago

EVNOW: I agree. At least I think the Civics have gotten less sporty and more family with each generation. Well, they're safer with each generation too in their defense, but I don't know if sportiness is a factor. I was really hoping/expecting Honda to announce a for-sale Fit EV. Even if they were only to sell 1000 in three years, it would be nuts but it would be something. I thought that in addition to the Fit EV there would be a future Civic EV announced. It only makes sense right? Or at least an EV Accord, or both. But to hear nothing. It was quite a let down.

There does seem to be some hope though in this article:

Apparently word got home that the new Civic is not that amazing. I like the crash tests, but otherwise it's no match for its ancestors. Maybe they'll get the crazy idea to make it electric.

· · 6 years ago

EVNOW: Not to change the important topic of Honda's failures, but I've got a Leaf question again. I'm not sure if any of you have 2012 Leaf's with the new battery heating element. If you do, how has it affected driving range and all that? How many miles do you lose when it's on versus not on? How much better in cold range is it than the 2011 Leaf?

I've tried to Google out some new LA4 tests with the new battery heater, but I guess they didn't bother conducting any. Additionally, since there's no A/C for the battery, how does the 100 degree heat affect it? Like, if you have to leave it out in a parking lot all day with no shade. Does that have any battery effect? Granted, California hasn't had much in the way of 100 degree days since the Leaf came out. :)

Thanks - Brett

· Lad (not verified) · 6 years ago

Do you really believe they won't build EVs, ever? Well, I'll bet they have prototypes sitting in the back room. And, what you see from the CEO is an attempt to delay until they can catch up and recover their investment in ICEs.

He won't be around long if he doesn't make his profit numbers...He can hide from the ideas of the future only so long and when batteries catch up with the need for distance, he better be ready.

· · 6 years ago

@tterbo ·"How many miles do you lose when it's on versus not on? How much better in cold range is it than the 2011 Leaf?"

Here ....

· · 6 years ago

EVNOW: Thanks! Wow a review from Canada, why didn't I think of that. Not a bad review either. Maybe we can talk this reviewer to stick something on youtube. hehe

Lad: Nah I don't believe that really. There's no way that Honda's spent millions making these goofy toothpick EV concepts without ever considering a Civic/Accord EV concept. Well, there's 1% doubt, but mostly I can't believe they haven't. The market and/or investors will force Honda to make cool EVs like everybody, including their poor engineers, know they can. It's just an irritating question of when.

· · 6 years ago

It might defeat the purpose of EV somewhat, but when gas goes bye-bye, they could create a wood or propane heating accessory for really cold climates. That said, one guy said the battery heats itself naturally during driving. That's good news.

· · 6 years ago

The Honda AC-X concept car (seen in the back left of the last picture) that appears to be very similar to the FCX Clarity is a very pretty plugin hybrid, that could be a serious contender. It has a claimed Cd of 0.21, which is quite impressive; especially without a narrowed rear track or wheel skirts.

It is funny how people can be so optimistic about hydrogen which is caustic, explosive, unstable, and very difficult and expensive to come by -- and yet be so pessimistic about electricity which is pure energy that is easily available from several renewable sources. Hydrogen cars are essentially EV's with hydrogen powered range extenders!

Electric drivetrains are ~85% efficient plug to wheel. No other drivetrain is even HALF that efficient. Electricity is available from many renewable sources; more than any other energy source. Electricity is the nexus of renewable energy.

I am certain that electric cars can have ranges 200-400 miles (or more!) on a single charge. It all comes down to the efficiency of the car chassis itself, and the single biggest factor (after the drivetrain efficiency!) is the aerodynamic drag. We need Cd's of >0.24 and Cd's as low as 0.15 are possible, I believe. My CarBEN EV5 open source 5-seat electric car should have a range of 300-400 miles using a ~56kWh pack. If I could use the DBM Energy Kolibri 99kWh battery, it could go way farther than that.

I'm still working out an issue with the driver board on my 3-axis CNC machine and I should be able to get started building a full sized working prototype of CarBEN EV5. See my blog linked above for updates. It is going to be a moldless foam core composite chassis, with the pack in the floor, all four wheels will have skirts (hinged ones on the front), and the top, sides and bottom all have near optimum taper for excellent drag. The prototype will use a windshield from a Smart ForTwo, and I am planning on using a twin direct drive motors on the front wheels, like FVT used in their eVaro. The foam core of the chassis will double as thermal insulation, and the seats will be mesh stretched on frames (like an office chair or the 2CV) that will save weight and space, and have good ventilation. The driver sits in the center, so it will provide better crash protection; all else being equal.

Sincerely, Neil

· · 6 years ago

For heat in an EV, the seats can be heated, or heated vests like those used by motorcyclists could be used -- both warm the people directly and so they would be more efficient that heating the entire space of the car. As I am doing in the CarBEN EV5, the chassis should be insulated to stabilize the temperature inside the vehicle in all seasons.

The electric defrosters that use a very thin coating of gold on the glass would do the same for the windshield.


· · 6 years ago

Let's not forget that Honda is the largest manufacturer of ICEs in the world. They make not only cars, but motorcycles, boat engines, generators, tractor engines, snow blowers, you name it! If anyone has something to lose by their obsolescence, it is Honda.

@tterbo: Funny you mention a propane heater in this context. In the 1990's, Honda produced the EV+ with just that - a propane cabin heater.

· Warren (not verified) · 6 years ago

I have to agree with Mr. Ito. An electric car bigger than the Fit makes no sense. I would say that applies to ICE cars too. Unfortunately, if battery energy density doubles, there will be even less interest in producing sensibly sized EV's.

· Evil_Attorney (not verified) · 6 years ago

Honda is being penny-wise and pound foolish here. It really sounds like the issue is that they don't see EVs being immediately profitable in the short term and therefore don't want to make any real investment in them. This conservative strategy may be good for Honda's bottom line now, but not in 10 years from now.

I think part of what's going on here relates to Honda's sunk costs. If I recall correctly, a huge chunk of Honda's recent patents/application have been directed to fuel cells and little to BEV-related technology. I suspect that they have bet big on fuel cell R&D and are hoping something happens to make them more attractive than BEVs.

We've seen that creating an EV isn't a simple as just throwing a battery, motor and wheels together. There is a lot of fine tuning and know-how involved. GM and Nissan have a huge advantage since they are already producing cars and collecting real world data from OnStar and CarWings. Further, and possibly more importantly, GM, Nissan, Ford, Mits, Tesla and others are VERY busy filing patent applications to lock up the IP on many critical BEV-related concepts. Honda will eventually be face with the decision to sell inferior BEVs or engage in expensive patent licensing deals.

· · 6 years ago

> I have to agree with Mr. Ito. An electric car bigger than the Fit makes no sense. I would say that applies to ICE cars too<

I agree if your point is that we Americans tend to buy WAY more car than we typically need or use. And I have the same worry about facilitating the building of over-sized EVs. BUT... most of my transportation is by bicycle. When I drive, it is typically to take the whole family with gear, bicycles and dog. For that, I need more than the Fit. We all have different "needs."

And back on track: Thanks for the info, Brad. Not a single thing surprises me in what was said... *except* that no mention of FCVs was made. I find that encouraging.

Yeah. Gas cars are cheaper. Let's keep building them since every American has a god-given right to cheap, gas-burning cars!

· · 6 years ago

@NeilBlanchard - Good luck with putting your EV together! Keep us all posted on how it goes. Aero is the biggest driver. Then weight. Then electronics/motor efficiency. But to really get good range out of a battery pack you need all three. It sounds like you are on a good track.

I have designed and built a number of EVs in the past and a lot of work with foam core carbon epoxy panels. It is messy work, but the results are well worth it. There is a lot that you can learn in this area from the Indy race cars. They are designed for crashes at speeds far in excess of our highways. It is the assembly of the panels where you really have to watch the structural integrety. Namely failures in the carbon epoxy near the fasteners or brackets (due to near point loading). Be sure to use a lot of area cross-section to transfer the loads into or out of the brackets or fasteners.

· Warren (not verified) · 6 years ago

As an old boomer, the kids and pets are gone. Give me a Honda EV-STER, or the Mitsubishi i MiEV Sport Air! :-)

· · 6 years ago

Honda's CEO is realistic. Let's not forget that hybrids have been on the market more than 10 years, but if you look at world car sales, hybrid market share is less than 2%. It'll be many years before EVs reach this level...

But I would like Honda to lead the world in electric 2-wheelers. The Chinese are moving fast, but their products are low-quality. Vectrix failed, but Honda could make a great electric scooter.

· · 6 years ago

>> Honda's CEO is realistic.
...It'll be many years before EVs reach this level... <<

Being realistic and being proactive can and should go hand-in-hand. Sitting around and waiting for everybody else to eat your cake has rarely proven to be good business practice.

If we follow your logic a bit further, then Toyota was *not* realistic to bring the Prius to market when it did???

· · 6 years ago

@Laurent J. Masson · "Honda's CEO is realistic."

We all know & agree there is a looming energy problem. The question is - what should be done about that. Either a company like Honda can say they don't know what future holds and thus will wait & see. Or they can make some bets - take some risks - and make things happen.

I don't know whether I'd call someone who just decides to wait & see realistic.

Infact, Honda has seen its position slip continuously in both Japan & US - and they don't seem to be doing anything. So it is not just w.r.t. alt. energy vehicles. In general Honda leadership lacks any kind of ideas, let alone leadership.

· · 6 years ago

Effectively, Toyota made a huge bet when they launched the Prius, and it took about 8 years to pay off. I guess the pay off should be quicker with EVs, but it'll be years before they get more than a "limited role" with significant market share. I'm sure the Nissan Leaf will be a great success, that the manufacturer could sell more than 100,000 per year, but Honda's selling many more Civics each year.

Don't misunderstand me, we just have to understand what "limited role" means. If there would be 1,000,000 electric cars sold per year in the world, that would still be "limited role" globally.

I'm more enthusiastic about EVs hotspots. In some crowded big cities, Pairs, Shanghai or San Francisco, EVs could get a good share of the market. Talking of "limited role" there wouldn't be appropriate.

· · 6 years ago

@Laurent J. Masson · "I'm sure the Nissan Leaf will be a great success, that the manufacturer could sell more than 100,000 per year, but Honda's selling many more Civics each year."

Yes - Civic would sell more. But so would Altima. Nissan hasn't sacrificed Altima to get out Leaf.

So, the real question is not what the market share of EVs will be in the next 5 years. The question is - what will be the development $$ that Honda commits to EVs. You need to commit $$ now to have some significant models 10 years down the road.

As I said - Honda's leadership is inept. Honda has been drifting for sometime with no good new models while all the while their position is slipping. Honda last month was #4 foreign auto maker in the US - down from #2. Both Nissan & Hyndai/Kia have beaten Honda. Where is their growth going to come from in 5 years - not civic, for sure.

· Mike I. (not verified) · 6 years ago

Honda has truly lost its way. Even if you ignore their electrification strategy mis-steps and weaknesses, they have genuinely lost their lead in combustion engine technology. Toyota is pushing for ever higher thermal efficiency for their Prius line, Hyundai and even Ford have higher specific output (hp/liter), direct injection, better fuel economy, etc. They really need to step up their game if I'm ever going to consider buying a Honda/Acura again. This coming from a guy who grew up with Hondas all around in the family every since I started thinking about cars. Myself and my parents have purchased '84, '86, '91, '94, '04, '05 Accords and a '97 CL. My dad's last car purchase was a Prius and I want my next vehicle to be a BEV. Evidently, Honda doesn't want to sell me one. Too bad.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 6 years ago

There's a reason why Nissan is selling the Leaf today and not an electric Maxima. It's the same reason Honda is focusing on small vs. large EVs. Obviously, someday this will change. But why punish somebody for simply speaking the truth?

· · 6 years ago

@Mike: "I want my next vehicle to be a BEV. Evidently, Honda doesn't want to sell me one. Too bad."

I second that!

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.