Dreams, Fantasies, and Realities: Inside Honda’s Japanese R&D Lab

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Luxury supercars, hydrogen fuel cells, and fully autonomous cars — in 15 years

For a few brief moments, Honda showed us the future of driving. It’s not what you think. It’s electric, yes, but not dependent on batteries alone. It’s certainly autonomous, but probably not quite as soon as other carmakers would have you believe. It’ll still be gasoline-powered, too, but with efficiencies that will rival today’s hybrids. It’ll be filled with ten-speeds.

The reality, though, is this: the truly best stuff? Not gonna happen. But we’ll get to that in a sec.

First, background. Automobile manufacturers aren’t known for their open-door policies. You can’t just waltz in and see what they’re up to, any more than you can at Apple, say, or Sony. The reasons are obvious: Concealment of trade secrets and new tech from the competition, and the simple fact that most of the stuff in development at any given moment likely won’t see the light of day. It may not pan out, it may evolve into something else, or it may just not be anything anybody really wants. The archives of high-tech companies the world over are filled with really stupid stuff they’d rather you just didn’t see.

So when Honda (slogan: “the Power of Dreams”) recently opened the doors of its sprawling research and development center in Tochigi, Japan—complete with a its own banked-oval test track—it was a rare opportunity to see what directions the company is headed, beyond what you can infer from recent history.

The event, held in conjunction with the Tokyo Motor Show, certainly wasn’t a complete baring of its techno/corporate-soul—we saw a carefully curated selection of next-gen tech, and under strictly controlled circumstances at the test track. There were no glimpses of drawing boards where ideas are floated and honed, and no look at hardware labs or testing facilities. Also: virtually no photography allowed. It was all completely clinical, but still quite telling.

Stop one: Realities

The Tour de Tech of Honda’s facilities necessarily had to include the most near-term and practical innovations, starting with Honda’s Clarity fuel cell vehicle (FCV). We took a hyper-brief spin in this hyper-advanced fuel cell car, and found it more powerful and stylish than its somewhat clunky immediate predecessor, the FCX. The big innovation here is the continued miniaturization and efficiency-enhancement of its fuel cell stack. That previously had to sit buried in the passenger compartment, but it now fits under the hood, freeing up more space amid the front and rear seats—capacity bumps up from four to five people.

The challenge here, as we’ve discussed frequently before, is the hydrogen fueling infrastructure, but the fact that Honda and Toyota (by virtue of its Mirai hydrogen carreleased over the summer) appear so dedicated to the role of hydrogen in our collective future is telling. Critics slag the tech constantly, but these are not stupid companies. They’re taking the long-view, seeing the fuel as an important contributor to our alt-fuel plan—not a single solution. The new Clarity FCV has a 434-mile range, the longest of an electric vehicle, and it fuels in mere minutes. That says a lot—and suggests that maybe these companies know something we don’t.

Honda’s new 10-speed transmission and its small turbocharged 1-liter, three-cylinder and 1.5-liter four-cylinder engines made appearances, as well. The small engines represent Honda’s first effort to downsize and turbocharge its engines, and the models we tested were surprisingly spry and responsive. Neither felt sluggish in the Civic sedan mules with tried them in—the three-cylinder in particular was eyebrow-raising in its non-three-cylinderishness.

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