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Honda CEO on hydrogen, robots and racing

By Joe Brown
Popular Science
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(PopSci.comexternal link) -- On a recent trip to Honda's R&D center in Utsunomia, Japan, PopSci got a rare opportunity to sit down and chat one on one with the company's president and CEO, Takeo Fukui. We discussed motorcycle racing, the future of the automotive industry, and, of course, robots. Here's what he had to say.

Q: You must be very excited for tomorrow's race [the Grand Prix of Japan].

A: Yes, I am. Motegi is our home track, so I am optimistic that Nicky [Nicky Hayden, Honda's team driver] will win [he came in sixth].

Q: OK, down to business [we only had 10 minutes for the interview]. You started out at Honda working on the 1973 CVCC, the first car to meet the stringent oil-embargo-era EPA emissions standards, so you have unique insight into the challenges of a fuel crisis. The end of that crisis proved that the American consumer had a very short memory -- as recently as two years ago, cars that barely exceeded 10 mpg were flying off the lots. If this fuel crisis passes in a similar fashion, how long do you think it will take before America forgets again, and how will Honda, as a company supplying that market, respond?

A: Yes, Americans love big cars, and they will want them whenever possible. Honda will, of course, give them what they want, but our cars will always be the most fuel-efficient in their respective classes. Over and above the availability of fuel, we have a serious problem with global warming that needs urgent attention, so Honda vehicles will always strive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions regardless of the price of fuel.

Q: How much of the company's current focus on efficiency can you take credit for, and how much of it is due to Honda's identity?

A: The credit for this focus goes all the way back to Soichiro Honda, our company's founder. He made his name famous with four-stroke motorcycle engines that were more efficient than any of the two-stroke competitors. Environmental sensitivity is historically and currently at the core of our corporate DNA. And actually, we started working on the CVCC before the 1970s oil crisis; it was just coincidental that we launched it when there was a real need for that car. You can even look at our new HondaJet. It's 40 percent more efficient than any other plane in its class, and we started work on that project years in advance of this most recent fuel shortage.

Q: So does that mean that the next NSX, which you have said will have a V-10 engine, will be a green supercar?

A: [Laughs] I don't think there's such a thing, but it will definitely be the most efficient car in its class.

Q: Honda aggressively pushes hydrogen as the fuel of the future, but there is a lot of criticism because hydrogen takes so much energy to generate and often uses fossil fuels to do so. Is hydrogen the ultimate solution to our automotive environmental problems, or is there something beyond that, a further step toward efficiency that Honda has in the works?

A: It is important to understand that hydrogen is not a fuel but a means of transporting energy in a manner that does not create a toxic waste product. In the future, I envision an electric car that runs off hydrogen generated by solar panels. So don't compare hydrogen to oil. Compare sunlight to oil, and there, I think, is an excellent solution. (Read more about Honda's FCX prototype fuel-cell car)

Q: Is Honda developing new solar technologies as well?

A: Yes, and in fact, there's a very good panel over there that we just developed [points to a new thin-film solar panel].

Q: What percent of Honda's R&D budget is spent on solar technology?

A: I can't be specific about that.

Q: Is efficiency the legacy you'd like to leave?

A: Yes, I am proud to continue our corporate vision, but, as I said, that is Soichiro Honda's legacy. If I might presume to wish to be remembered for something, it would be for making a positive difference in as many ways as possible, even beyond fuel-efficient vehicles. I think that is the duty of all good corporate citizens.

Q: In what ways other than vehicles is Honda improving people's lives?

A: One example is our robot, Asimo. I'd like to see one in every home, freeing up the parents to spend more time with their children, helping to educate children, and caring for the elderly.

Q: Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us.

A: It was my pleasure.


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Fukui: "Americans love big cars, and they will want them whenever possible."

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