Tochigi, Japan – Cars that talk to each other. Electric cars that park themselves. Downsized fuel cells, hybrid sports cars, and tiny-displacement engines that go like stink: it was all part of an inside look at Honda’s research and development centre in Japan.
All eyes are on the future, and like all of its competitors, Honda is looking as far as decades ahead. Not everything will end up in the market as it was presented at the event—if it makes it at all—but the technology in every project has the potential for other uses in the future.
(Disclosure: Travel, accommodations and meals were provided to the author by the automaker.)
Honda has 23 research facilities worldwide, including a new one in South Africa, but the proving grounds test centre at Tochigi remains the cornerstone of the company’s focus.
My first stop was to test Honda’s collision avoidance systems. We already have some of them here, such as LaneWatch, which broadcasts an image of the right lane alongside in the centre screen when the turn signal is activated, to show drivers what’s in the “blind spot.” But I also drove a car that swerved by itself to avoid a pedestrian, and came to a complete stop when I didn’t slam on the brakes to avoid an object in front.
Those are steps toward autonomous driving, and Honda then presented two versions of that, too. In the first, an Accord equipped with sensors and cameras wove its way around a course, with no input from the driver. It sensed a woman standing at the corner and stopped while she walked across.
Using vehicle-to-vehicle communication—V2V, as it’s dubbed by researchers—the Accord also “talked” to an electric scooter, and to a motorcycle, both of which had the right-of-way but were still hidden from the driver’s view. The car stopped for them in advance. In the real world, this could prevent a serious collision.
This autonomous car “talks” with a scooter to avoid a collision…
The other demonstration involved two electric-powered Fit hatchbacks that parked themselves. Several cars can already do this, but they use sensors that determine where other vehicles are and park in relation to them. Instead, the Fits communicated with sensors in the parking area, which indicated where the open spots were and how best to get into them. While such infrastructure is still well into the future, this has the potential for you to get out of your car at the parking garage door, and then let the car park itself. Instead of having the car drive around until it found a spot, the garage would wirelessly direct it straight to its destination.
The company also demonstrated a self-parking car called the MC-Beta, and although I got to drive it, don’t ever expect to see it here. It’s an electric micro-car that Honda expects it will eventually put into production for Japanese cities. It’s surprisingly fun to drive, and with its offset rear seat, holds two people. But if you don’t feel like turning the steering wheel yourself, the MC-Beta will obediently follow a car in front, and using an app on a tablet, you can order it to park itself, or to start up and come out to greet you.
The electric MC-Beta can park itself when the driver uses a tablet app…
There was the latest generation of Honda’s fuel stack on display, which is smaller but more powerful than the one currently used in the FCX Clarity that’s available for lease in some California markets, and a three-motor hybrid system—one electric motor attached to the engine for hybrid propulsion, and one at each rear wheel for all-wheel capability—that I drove in the RLX Hybrid that’s coming to Canada. (Alas, I didn’t get to test it in the upcoming NSX, which will also use the system.)
But perhaps the most important development shown, in terms of everyday driving, was a series of three small-displacement turbocharged engines, along with a new transmission.
The direct-injection gasoline engines, dubbed VTEC Turbo, include a 1.0-litre three-cylinder; a 1.5-litre four-cylinder; and a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that makes more than 280 horsepower. That one was mounted in a Civic Type R, which I took past 200 km/h on the test track. All three engines will be coming to Honda’s global products. While it’s probable that we won’t see the 1.0-litre over here, that 2.0-litre seems poised for a North American introduction.
The new transmission is an unusual one: an eight-speed, dual-clutch automatic equipped with a torque converter. Dual-clutch units are fun to drive and more fuel-efficient than regular transmissions, because they shift almost instantly by setting up the next gear as soon as the current one is engaged. However, they can also be jerky at lower speeds. This new transmission starts off with the torque converter for smoothness, and then reverts to instant shifts.
Even so, Honda expects that most of its transmissions in future will be CVTs, primarily due to the part they play in reducing fuel consumption.
There was even more to the day’s event: a chance to drive a car with steer-by-wire, which uses sensors and electric motors instead of a mechanical linkage to the wheels; a prototype CR-Z made of carbon fibre and reinforced plastic; and a Fit Hybrid. That hatchback hybrid is not currently planned for Canada, but you never know. When engineers are looking at the future, almost anything is possible.