While it has made limited numbers of so-called ‘compliance’ battery electric vehicles during the past five years or so alongside limited numbers of plug-in hybrids, Honda — just like its fellow Japanese automaker Toyota — has never been an open fan of cars with a plug.
Instead, it has chosen to champion hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, promising a future where the only tailpipe emissions from cars will be water, where people can fill up on renewably-generated hydrogen fuel just as they fill their cars with gasoline today, and where electric vehicle range anxiety is a thing of the past. But as electric vehicle technology has improved and the true challenges of bringing a hydrogen fuel cell car to market have become blindingly obvious, Honda has slowly and quietly changed its predictions for the future.
At the end of last year, Honda quietly confirmed that it intended to build a plug-in hybrid car for 2018 based on the same platform as its upcoming 2017 Clarity fuel cell sedan. Now its CEO Takahiro Hachigo is promising that electric cars, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles will all play a part in Honda’s future vehicle lineup as part of Honda’s new goal of making two-thirds of all vehicles it sells by 2030 come with some form of electrification.
The news comes courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, which reports that Mr. Hachigo made the announcement on his one-year anniversary of taking over duties as CEO of Honda. Talking to members of the press at a specially-convened news conference, Honda’s boss said that he would be willing to do what it takes to “shake up” Honda’s development teams to ensure that each team was focused on both vehicle design as well as driving experience. Additionally, he promised renewed emphasis on greener, cleaner vehicles, as well as a shift away from design and development philosophies of old.
Part of that seems to include a tacit acknowledgement that Honda’s previous CEO — Takanobu Ito — was leading the Japanese automaker in the wrong direction.
“People working on production and development have been facing increased hours and workload because we pursued speed and scale that went beyond our capabilities,” he admitted. “We want to focus our development resources for electrification.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that insiders at Honda refer to Hachigo as having a far more ‘consensus-oriented’ approach to company policies than Ito. That, it says, means that some executives are worried that Honda is losing time and focus on long-term strategies by spending too much time looking for concord. But as the recent Volkswagen dieselgate scandal has shown, companies where executive orders are blindly followed are also companies where mistakes can be swept under the carpet.
The shakeup being promised by Hachigo could be just what Honda needs.
It’s worth noting that the announcement simply covers ‘electrified’ vehicles, meaning anything from a mild hybrid through to a one hundred percent battery electric vehicle or a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. But with the rollout of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure taking far longer than Toyota, Honda or Hyundai had predicted, we’re guessing a large proportion of electrified vehicles from Honda in the short to mid-term will include a plug.
That’s because hydrogen refuelling infrastructure won’t be mature enough to support large numbers of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for years or possibly even decades to come and hybrid vehicles alone won’t be enough to allow Honda to meet ever-increasing emissions and corporate average fuel economy targets.
Does this mean Honda is going cold on hydrogen? It’s unlikely. While Honda will likely use all-electric platforms for smaller cars, we’re expecting it to continue hydrogen fuel cell development alongside plug-in car offerings for some time to come, especially given rumors of its recent agreement with GM to build and develop affordable hydrogen fuel cell stacks.
But until the cost of producing hydrogen fuel cell technology falls, the new, more pragmatic Honda seems aware that its past decision to write off plug-in vehicles may have been a little premature. And that, to many plug-in fans, is a great deal of progress.
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