Innovative, disruptive, leading-edge. In the auto industry, these terms conjure manufacturers like Tesla, Lucid and Rivian, not Honda. Honda is the staid, 60-year-old brand that makes affordable cars for regular people. But that image hides an innovative streak that started with its original CEO Sochiro Honda.
Sochiro Honda was the one that said, "listen to the young people," when making inexpensive mopeds like the Honda SuperCub. He was the one that when the Big Three said "reducing pollution by 90 percent is impossible," introduced the first CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine, an innovation in fuel economy that would level the playing field for Honda in the United States, just like EVs and connectivity are leveling the playing field today. Heat Exchanger Hvac
Honda CEO Toshihiro Mibe and Corporate Brand Officer (now in charge of electrification and negotiations in North America) Shinji Aoyama don't see modern Honda as pushing the envelope. They're just following the legacy of Sochiro, who said, "we must possess the will to challenge difficulties and the wisdom to create new values without being bound by established standards. We do not wish to imitate others."
"I'm not exactly sure about the word disruptive. But our way of thinking has not changed," CEO Mibe told Newsweek during a roundtable interview opportunity at the company's offices in Tochigi, Japan. "Our aspiration remains the same in that we'd like to be a leader. We want to be the leader for the future mobility with our technology, that thinking has remained constant."
One question later Mibe dutifully listed all of the ways Honda is being disruptive in every mobility space, including the sky.
"So of course, electric cars are one way, but of course we want to get into EV motorcycles. And we are currently developing the eVTOL (an electric passenger aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing). And then also we would like to be able to come up with some carbon neutral products for marine applications as well," said Mibe. "We want to be able to cover the sky and the ocean and the whole land as well."
Honda might seem conspicuously late to the electric vehicle (EV) party, but between its partnerships with Sony, GM and battery maker LG ES, it has irons in fires all over the world. And it doesn't consider itself behind anyone.
"Until five years back, our strategy was that the business would be established mainly around hybrid technologies by 2013. That was what we were anticipating. In the last five years battery EVs have advanced in Europe and the States," said Mibe.
"Still, if you look at the situation from a customer's viewpoint, battery EVs are not as convenient as the current hybrids. However, looking at the carbon neutrality and with the political situations today, already we have this momentum for battery EVs. In that context we might be looked at sort of being behind. But our goal is to achieve carbon neutrality. It is not to manufacture EVs," he said.
To that end, Honda's biggest innovations are being developed now with its carbon capturing technologies including a microalgae called Dreamo, its solid state batteries that will be production ready before the end of the decade and its new energy storage solutions that can make small equipment battery exchanges as easy as filling up a lawnmower with gasoline.
Starting with the carbon capture, Honda has the Dreamo microalgae that eats carbon dioxide and produces oxygen. Its self-replicating and takes very little input to work, says Honda. It can withstand temperatures even below freezing, but needs to be placed near a source of carbon dioxide to be most effective.
To get that CO2 into the algae, Honda has created a carbon capturing device and its currently scaling it up to size. The Direct Air Capture system takes in CO2 from the atmosphere, concentrates it and then either combines it with hydrogen to produce an e-fuel or feeds it directly to the algae.
The carbon goes in at 0.04 percent, uses a CO2 absorption material and pushes it out at 95 percent CO2. That can be mixed with a catalyst for the fuel, or sent to the Dreamo algae tanks to make biofuel, bioplastics or food and dietary supplements. The excess can be stored permanently in old oil wells while liquid CO2 can be stored safety by mixing it with calcium.
Honda says it expects to store 10 kilograms of CO2 this year using direct capture, 10,000 kgs next year and 100,000 the following year. Everything needs to be recycled.
"Our goal is not to change internal combustion engines to battery. Our goal is to reach a carbon neutral world by 2050. Resource circulation is key," Aoyama told Newsweek. "We must replace many of our components to sustainable or recyclable materials. But after that, in 10 or 15 years we have to recycle that. We have many things to do."
Moving to solid-state batteries (SSB), Honda wants to be one of the first to use the technology in a commercial automobile and it will finish its pilot assembly line for them in spring of 2024. The line is going up at its Sakura research center, and Honda did say it would be open to sharing the technology with other automakers. It has a current partnership with General Motors on a couple electric crossovers, but the solid-state batteries aren't part of the deal.
Solid-state batteries don't use a liquid electrolyte to carry lithium ions, instead they use a solid electrolyte film layer. Solid-state batteries are more stable than liquid ones in that the liquid is flammable at high temperatures. SSBs charge faster than lithium-ion batteries, require less safety equipment and hold a higher charge. They currently cost about eight times more than a liquid battery to produce, but the technology is moving along in development. If all goes according to plan, SSBs will soon be in many new EVs.
"That will help compared to the current batteries. They will contribute to reducing weight and that will be very effective for vehicles like Type R, as well as to motorcycle applications. This solid-state battery would probably be a kind of center of the technology for the future EV," said Mibe.
Aoyama hedged a bit, noting that while Honda is learning from its joint ventures, with GM and battery-maker LG Energy Solutions, there's still time to decide where to put its money.
"In the late 2020s, we'll have to monitor the development of the SSB, and then if it's going well and we have good prospects, that's where we'll make the next big investment. If the prospects aren't going well, then we would make investment in lithium-ion again. That decision can wait two years or so," he said.
Honda is also raising its stake in the small passenger aircraft market. The company has sold the Honda Jet since 2003 (a new version was just announced in October 2022) and is now working on electric and hybrid VTOLs for short and medium-range flight. VTOL stands for vertical takeoff and landing.
The VTOL has eight, high-mounted rotors and can travel about 60 miles with just a battery. It could be used for inter and intracity flight, says Honda, even as an ambulance. However, taking a more "realistic approach," Honda will also create a hybrid version with a generator on board.
The hybrid version could go about five times the distance as the electric VTOL, about 300 miles, and conveniently would also run on the aviation fuel the company created by sequestering carbon. Honda will begin testing the eVTOL in 2023, but noted it still has a lot of regulatory hurdles to clear.
Future tech batteries, carbon capturing unicellular organisms, electric flying helicopter passenger drones. They sound like something out of Elon Musk's diary. But that's Honda's thing, quietly innovating in the background, coming up with the technology buyers will use tomorrow while also selling them the technology they want today.
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