As Its Automotive and Robotic Programs Languish, Honda Tries to Rekindle the Spirit of Innovation

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
as its automotive and robotic programs languish honda tries to rekindle the spirit

Honda wants to up its software game and encourage creative uses for ones and zeros at its new research and development center. With ASIMO — the company’s adorable robot mascot — almost old enough to smoke, Honda hasn’t developed a super-high-profile gizmo in nearly 17 years.

Recently, the company took a distinctive back-to-basics approach to address slipping quality, though CEO Takahiro Hachigo confessed that rekindling the R&D “spirit” would be the other half of building a better Honda Motor Co.

With those goals in mind, Tokyo’s Honda Innovation Lab opened its doors to the press on Tuesday as the company announced it will be forming a specific unit to focus on the development of software-laden technology for its next generation of vehicles.

Starting in April at the R&D lab’s Center X, the special development unit will place an emphasis on mobility systems, energy management, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Meaning we may yet see a fully-aware ASIMO 3.0 riding a Honda UNI-CUB. Neat, but what does that mean for cars?

“It’s not going to be research for the sake of research,” Yoshiyuki Matsumoto, president of Honda R&D, told Automotive News.

He believes the new research arm could deliver its first results in robotics by next year and something for autonomous driving by 2020. Honda showcased some self-driving and artificial intelligence concepts at this year’s CES, promising that it would dump billions of dollars into development in order to achieve those goals — including an empathetic “emotion engine” A.I. that anticipates driver’s needs.

Honda is, admittedly, behind its rivals when it comes to the wide-open and unfocused mobility universe. That’s especially true in terms of the necessary software, an issue Center X hopes to address through collaboration. Ford is investing $1 billion in A.I. technology over the next five years while Toyota has already spent that much on its own artificial intelligence programs. Like Ford, Honda is seeking partners to help push it in the direction it needs to go and acquire software expertise.

“Just look at where the wealth is. It’s in the software area, not in the hardware area. Hardware is more like a commodity, and it’s in software where the major margins are,” said Edward Feigenbaum, a computer science and artificial intelligent professor from Stanford University.

Honda has already been contacted by hundreds of firms and individuals hoping to collaborate on software development. “We will leave our doors wide open and collaborate with anyone,” Matsumoto said.

While Center X will share some resources with the Honda Innovation Lab in Tokyo, it will be entirely separate from the R&D departments for its automobiles, motorcycles and power products. However, all of those divisions stand to benefit from whatever X comes up with.

[Image: Honda]

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2 of 11 comments
  • MrGrieves MrGrieves on Mar 01, 2017

    ASIMO was neat, but AWESOM-O was much better.

  • DC Bruce DC Bruce on Mar 01, 2017

    I'm not favorably impressed by any of this. Companies of all kinds develop core competencies in their specific businesses. These skills rarely translate into other lines of business. I remember in the mid to late 1970s, the oil companies were overflowing with money, thanks to two successive "Arab oil shocks/embargoes." Exxon paid gobs of money for a company that supposedly had a revolutionary, energy-efficient electric motor. Everyone was in a tizzy: could this be the real-life example of the 100 mpg carburetor that was bought by "the oil companies " and then locked away forever? Today you've never heard of it. The money would have been better paid out to shareholders in fatter dividends. The sad fact is that the perceived quality of Honda and Toyota is not present today, across the full vehicle line, as it was in the 80s and 90s. Cost- cutting is evident. Have we achieved "peak auto"? Hardly. There's still much work to be done to increase the thermodynamic efficiency of the ICE (ceramics are the next frontier) and reduce vehicle weight (structured composites are the frontier). Why the push for self-driving cars? If they are developed that would result in the total commoditization of their business, since product differentiation would be limited to comfy seats, killer entertainment systems and cool exterior colors. Think about it folks: what revolutionized the petroleum business since the 1970s? Fracking. An extension of that business's core competence. Why would ride-sharing (f/k/a "taxi service ") or software revolutionize the car/truck/bus business?

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