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.”

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