Honda Motor Co. Ltd., which was quick out of the gate in the race to electrification with its Insight hybrid sedan more than two decades ago, is now well off the pace. Honda’s Prologue crossover, its first fully electric vehicle (EV), will not be released until 2024.
“Until five years ago, our strategy was that our business would be established mainly around hybrid technologies by 2030 – that was what we were anticipating five years back,” Honda’s global chief executive officer, Toshihiro Mibe, told The Globe and Mail at a media roundtable in Tokyo. However, he added, “Our goal is to achieve carbon neutrality; it is not [simply] to manufacture EVs.”
To achieve that goal by 2050, the Japanese car maker is eyeing a multi-faceted approach, not just replacing gas-burning engines with batteries, Mibe said. The plan includes sourcing and recycling sustainable materials, developing a hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain for heavier vehicles and even cultivating algae to absorb CO2 emitted in manufacturing, as a potential food and energy source, and a base for plastic. But the biggest bet is on producing solid-state batteries.
“We believe that all-solid-state batteries will be a game changer in the EV market,” said Shinji Aoyama, Honda Motor Co.’s senior managing executive officer, who is responsible for the electrification of all the company’s products. Honda is aiming to develop them for mass production by the second half of the 2020s.
Solid-state batteries are currently the Holy Grail of electrification. They can store much more energy, last longer, charge faster and are less susceptible to heat and cold compared with current lithium-ion batteries. Their smaller size and lighter weight mean more can be placed in a regular vehicle for longer range, or in a smaller vehicle (such as a motorcycle) for reasonable range. They exist today, but are time-consuming to manufacture: A single battery cell can take 10 hours to make. A compact car’s single battery would likely contain hundreds of cells. Honda is investing more than $500-million to establish a pilot manufacturing line to figure out how to make solid-state batteries quickly and efficiently.
Nissan unveiled a prototype solid-state battery production facility earlier this year and aims to launch an EV with its solid-state batteries by 2028. Mercedes, Toyota, Hyundai, Ford, General Motors, BMW and Volkswagen have also invested in research into solid-state batteries.
Until solid-state batteries are ready for prime-time, likely by 2028 or 2029, Honda is partnering with General Motors to use its lithium-ion Ultium battery in the upcoming Prologue and Acura ZDX, as well as to create an “affordable” EV in 2027 with a target price tag of about $40,000. It is also partnering with LG Energy Solution to produce its own lithium-ion batteries for a vehicle by 2026, so that by 2030, it will build two million EVs globally – that’s about half its current automotive production. By 2040, the plan is for all Honda cars and trucks to be EVs.
“Right now, what we consider very important is that GM and Honda work together to drive the mass volume and reduce costs and enhance our competitiveness together,” said Mibe, “which we believe we have to do at the inception stage of our new EV.”
Honda has a history of working with General Motors – in the early 2000s, it supplied the V6 engine and transmission for the Saturn Vue SUV. And besides, ”I am jealous of General Motors because they are good at branding their technology,” Aoyama said. “Ultium sounds like ultimate lithium-ion, right? Their naming and promoting of their technology is really good, but we are not really good.”
Beyond 2030, Honda is aiming to be a leader in EV motorcycles, small aircraft and boats.
“We want to be the leader for the future with our technology – that thinking has remained constant,” said Mibe. “We want to get into EV motorcycles and we are currently developing an eVTOL [an electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft], and also we would like to come up with some carbon-neutral products for marine applications as well. We want to cover the sky and the ocean and the land, so we really would like to lead future mobility.”
In all of this, can Honda still produce a vehicle that’s actually fun to drive?
“We are developing a lot of different technologies, and we’re looking into what kind of technology would help us create cars with soul,” Mibe said. “That’s what we believe in, though it will take some time before this direction becomes more clear … I cannot say when, but we are pushing on with our development work to come up with fun-to-drive vehicles as soon as we can. We have test vehicles already, and for sure, they are more fun to drive than the six-speed manual alternative.”
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.