Honda Design Philosophy Stresses Function

Honda isn’t typically singled out for its design expertise. Instead, it is the fun-to-drive and rock-solid aspects of Honda vehicles that usually get top billing. But quietly, Honda has been capturing more and more international kudos for its leading-edge design work, and we were pleased to have the opportunity to meet with Nobuki Ebisawa, the corporate managing director and general manager of styling and design development, to talk about it.

Ebisawa stressed two simple and overarching themes for Honda design: dynamism and functionality. He said the company’s designers still draw inspiration from the functional designs of the first-generation Civic and first-generation Accord that were drawn in the same nondescript design studio in which Ebisawa and his crew work today. And at the same time, they look back all the way to the 1963 S500 sports car to channel the dynamism that helps set the brand apart. 

Ebisawa is proud of what he calls “an unbroken chain of dynamism and functionality” that stretches from those earliest models through the legendary Acura NSX sports coupe of the ’90s to the Honda Odyssey minivan that transformed its segment. He expects that the upcoming hybrid Honda CR-Z, which was shown in concept form at the recent Tokyo Motor Show, will draw on both aspects of the Honda personality. Functionality will be characterized by the fuel-efficient hybrid drivetrain, and dynamism will be expressed by the car’s style and fun-to-drive nature.

While the exterior design of Honda vehicles has not always been highly praised, the interior of its vehicles -- and especially their instruments and controls -- have routinely been lauded around the globe. Ebisawa cites his group’s intense study of the “man-machine interface” for this, noting that Honda has long relied on the philosophy “Man maximum, machine minimum” in its designs. This means that Honda’s controls are intended to be intuitive, not intrusive: to help the driver, not to challenge the driver or to make a design statement for design’s sake.

An example of this effort is the bi-level instrument panel seen on the current Honda Civic. Intuitive operation and instant recognition were keys in the design, and Ebisawa said that in the “layered construction,” perceived space is enhanced and line of sight movement minimized to prioritize information. Special effort goes into achieving natural hand position and create buttons that are easily understood. Ebisawa believes that voice support is the next frontier in making things simpler and more functional.

Since 2000, said Ebisawa, Honda design execs made the conscious decision to add emotional appeal to the company’s vehicles without compromising functionality. In keeping with the “man maximum, machine minimum” philosophy, space has been intentionally reduced for mechanical components, and interior space with long rooflines has been increased to maximize usable roominess.

The Honda CR-Z, which will be launched next year, will encapsulate all these ideas in a vehicle that is functional and emotional, dynamic yet pragmatic. It draws on Honda’s long heritage while at the same time presenting a new face and a new heart. The CR-Z will also be the harbinger of even more fascinating products from the carmaker that was once best known for its motorcycles.

Slow to Change

Old models just don’t compete well with new ones -- it’s true in the fashion industry, and it’s true with cars.

A failure to introduce new products at the same rate as foreign manufacturers explains the dwindling market share of American auto companies, according to a new Virginia Commonwealth University study to be published in the Journal of Business Research.

The study was conducted by three VCU School of Business economists, who analyzed market share changes in the automobile and light-truck markets. Their research revealed that new products, as measured by restyling, represent the dominant determinant of demand in the auto industry. Other factors such as price, advertising, rebranding, warranty curtailments, new safety appliances and even changes in vehicle reliability had relatively minimal impact on demand.

“A 10 percent reduction in relative price would yield only one-tenth the market share impact of a restyling,” said Oleg Korenok, assistant professor of economics at VCU and lead author of the study. “And one would have to double one's relative advertising expenditure to match the impact of a restyling.”

Domestic automotive producers saw their market share fall from 72.9 percent in 1996 to 47.4 percent in 2008. Over the 1995 to 2006 model years, Japanese manufacturers restyled on average every third year, while U.S. manufacturers restyled every four years.

Korenok and his co-authors -- George Hoffer, professor of economics at VCU, and Edward Millner, professor and chair of the department of economics at VCU -- argue that “this difference in styling (frequency) better explains the 25.5 percent market share loss for domestic manufacturers over this period than more-often cited factors, such as reliability differentials as cited by Consumer Reports.

“Japanese and Korean makes, and to a lesser extent European brands, have been much more aggressive in restyling and much more aggressive in introducing new products than the U.S. brands,” said Hoffer, who has researched the auto industry for more than 40 years. “Interestingly, the current Detroit Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) used more frequent restylings 50 years ago as a weapon to drive the post-war independent American manufacturers such as Hudson, Kaiser and Packard from the market.”

The study authors say that increased fragmentation of the domestic automobile market and management misallocation of styling resources explain the failure of U.S. manufacturers to restyle more frequently. They said that the Detroit Three's best hope of regaining market share is to increase the level of restyling activity, especially for high-volume lines. Domestic manufacturers should also be reluctant to jettison established vehicle-line names because rebranding has an adverse market share impact.

Lower Gas Prices Likely?

How would you like to be able to refuel your car each night from the comfort of your own home?

And how would you like the car that would use the fuel to be a super-clean hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle whose only emission is water vapor?

Sounds like a futuristic cable TV show on one of the more esoteric channels, doesn’t it? But in fact, the possibility is very real.

Honda, one car company that is still gung-ho about fuel cell vehicles, has just put into operation a next-generation solar hydrogen station prototype intended for ultimate use as a home refueling appliance capable of an overnight refill of fuel cell electric vehicles. Designed as a single, integrated unit to fit in a user’s garage, the solar system is much smaller than previous systems while producing enough hydrogen via an eight-hour overnight fill for daily commuting.

Compatible with a smart grid energy system, the Honda Solar Hydrogen Station would enable users to refill their vehicle overnight without storing hydrogen. It is expected to lower carbon dioxide emissions by using solar energy supplemented at night by less expensive off-peak electrical power. During daytime peak power times, the system can actually export renewable, solar-derived electricity to the grid, providing a cost benefit to the customer while remaining energy neutral.

Designed for simple, user-friendly operation, the intuitive system layout enables the user to easily lift and remove the fuel hose, which we believe is a very good idea. The system doesn’t require any tedious and awkward hose coiling when returning the hose to the dispenser unit either.

Engineered for slow-fill overnight refilling of a fuel cell electric vehicle like Honda’s FCX Clarity, the home-use Solar Hydrogen Station would replenish enough hydrogen for typical daily driving, meeting the commuting requirements of many drivers. But it won’t meet all their needs, so Honda expects the in-home refueling system to be complemented by a public network of fast-fill hydrogen stations. The FCX Clarity is fast-fill capable and offers an EPA-estimated driving range of 240 miles. With fast-fill public stations providing five-minute refueling time, cross-country trips will be much more convenient that in a battery electric with much longer recharge times. 

As installed at the Los Angeles center of Honda R&D Americas, the new solar hydrogen system will employ the same 48-panel, 6 kW solar array that powered the previous system. The array utilizes thin film solar cells composed of copper, indium, gallium and selenium. Honda Soltec Co., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Honda, was established to produce and sell these cells. Honda’s unique solar cells reduce the amount of carbon dioxide generated during production as compared to conventional solar cells. As with the previous-generation system, the hydrogen purity from the new station meets the highest SAE and ISO specifications.

By addressing the need for refueling infrastructure that can advance the wider use of fuel cell electric vehicles by consumers, Honda aims to encourage a new lifestyle with convenient, clean, energy-efficient and sustainable home refueling. The combination of a fuel cell electric vehicle and the solar hydrogen station could help accomplish this goal and result in a major reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and greater energy sustainability.

Electrics With Replaceable Batteries

When your flashlight batteries give out, you replace them with new batteries and move on. So why shouldn’t it be that simple with an electric car? Since the distance you can travel on a battery charge is the key limiting factor in an electric, many efforts up to now have revolved around inventing more efficient batteries that will increase vehicle range. But why not just make it easy to pull out the spent battery pack and replace it with another, just the way you might with a digital camera? The folks at Nissan and Renault agree, and they recently unveiled several electric cars with that feature at the Frankfurt motor show.

The Renault-Nissan alliance has been working for two years in close collaboration with a company called Better Place to develop rapid battery exchange stations. The fruit of that labor is QUICKDROP, an automatic battery exchange process that takes approximately three minutes. That’s about the same amount of time -- or less -- typically needed to fill the tank at a gas station. But since you’re not actually pumping gas, it’s cleaner and more convenient for drivers. The good news, especially on rainy or snowy days, is that drivers do not even need to leave their vehicles.

The QUICKDROP system will first be deployed in Israel and Denmark, reasonably small countries with high population density and just the kind of places that promise to make the best use of the QUICKDROP’s strength and minimize its weaknesses. In Frankfurt, Better Place announced a newly expanded agreement with Renault, committing both companies to a volume of at least 100,000 electric cars in both countries by 2016.

While changing out a spent battery quickly sounds appealing, it isn’t always feasible or even desirable -- much like other things better left undescribed right now. Because of that, the Nissan-Renault brain trust has devised a couple of other ways for consumers to recharge their vehicles. One of them is pretty familiar. Much like the circuits Americans use for heavy appliances like clothes dryers, the “standard charge” uses a domestic 220-volt 10-amp or 16-amp socket. Charging the vehicle’s batteries this way requires between six and eight hours, so it is best-suited to a car parked overnight in a private parking area or during the workday in a shared parking lot equipped with the requisite charging apparatus. A secure automatic-key system discourages vandals from disconnecting the cable during charging, and the plug socket can be easily adapted to the current grid by an electrician.

Another charging method is the “quick charge,” which employs a 400-volt socket using infrastructure that is still under development. This system will charge a 20-kilowatt battery in just 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the available current. Charging points using this technology are expected to be installed in residential areas near offices and shops.

To help make the project seem all the more real, Renault-Nissan displayed on its stand at the Frankfurt show four separate vehicles that use the technology. Certainly the most photogenic is the Twizy Z.E. Concept, an all-electric vehicle targeted primarily at “busy city dwellers who need to pick their way through the urban jungle.” The two-seater is ultra-compact with a 10-foot turning circle and an overall footprint not much larger than a scooter, though it rolls on four largely shrouded wheels, giving the impression that it glides along.

A more conventional vehicle is the Zoe Z.E. Concept, which Renault suggests is proof that a zero-emission vehicle can also possess a dynamic, edgy, attractive design. The overriding concerns were the seemingly conflicting goals of elegance and efficiency, but the designers largely pulled it off. The Zoe Z.E. features 21-inch wheels, not something you’d expect on an electric vehicle (EV).

The Fluence Z.E. Concept is an EV for the family that envelops its four occupants in leather and gel, a la Dr. Scholl’s. Passengers’ feet rest on a light-blue translucent gel mat. For a greater sense of comfort, gel covers the brake and accelerator pedals too. Good range with significant carrying capacity were the over-arching design parameters.

The Kangoo Z.E. Concept provides a foretaste of the future for urban-based transporter and delivery companies. When it comes to comfort, space and safety performance, it draws on the strengths of the Kangoo, a popular European delivery vehicle. To facilitate loading, the hatch-type rear door and wide folding sill ensures that parcels and other items are easy to slide into the rear cargo area.

An Angel Watching Over Your Kids

Those who have driving-age children must fervently wish that a guardian angel would keep watch over their children. With over 3,500 teen driving deaths per year in the United States, the issue of keeping your children safe when they are in the car has to be top-of-mind. Inexperience, distraction, drinking and drugs are all teen-related problems that can lead to tragic consequences. In response, parents, government officials, health and safety advocates and insurance companies have focused on finding ways to make the road a safer place for teens.

The effort to protect teens is moving forward on several fronts. These days a number of states have instituted graduated licensing programs that ease teens into the driving swing of things before turning them loose on their own and then accompanied by passengers. New Age driver’s training takes them beyond simple Rules of the Road quizzes to a better understanding of the dangers of distractions from cell phone use, texting, music and friends in the car. And one of the most promising new ways of protecting teens comes like an angel from the heavens. But rather than a product of divine intervention, it is a product of technical ingenuity. 

Now, several companies offer teen-behavior tracking systems based on Global Positioning System (GPS) that can keep an eye on your teens even if they are across the country. Progressive, AIG, Safeco and Allstate are just four of several insurance companies that offer such tracking and monitoring systems. According to Hussein Enan, CEO of online insurance comparison site InsWeb, many insurance companies offer insurance rate discounts for parents who take advantage of the GPS tracking programs. Teensurance, one of the leaders in the field, offers an insight into what the programs typically offer.

“The Teensurance program provides parents with a suite of tools to actively monitor and manage their teenager’s driving,” said Safeco executive Tim Haugaard, who is director of product management for the company’s Teensurance. “With its real-time tracking, speed alerts and curfew notifications sent via text message or e-mail, parents can identify and correct their teenager’s driving behavior before an accident occurs.”

“Underwriting teen drivers has always been a complicated situation for insurance companies,” Enan said. “They want to provide excellent service to parents, but teen drivers present a high degree of risk. GPS tracking services provide an easy and effective way to reduce the likelihood of risky driving behavior -- it’s win-win.”

In addition to the systems offered by various insurance companies, several GPS tracking systems with different capabilities are offered by vehicle manufacturers and the auto aftermarket. Some of these systems do not include real-time monitoring but instead record driving data on a removable flash or hard drive. While these devices have the potential disadvantage of not providing real-time information about a teen’s whereabouts, the monitoring functions they do offer -- items like where the teen was and how fast he or she got there -- are still helpful in promoting good behavior. One plus is they generally do not require a monthly fee. The only investment is the cost to buy and install the tracking unit.

While GPS is a technology with a proven track record, the ultimate impact it can have on teen driving safety is still being explored. But one thing is clear: With millions of Americans nationwide focused on helping teenagers drive more safely, GPS tracking services will play a significant role.