Development news from Honda's Japan HQ
Japan is a modest nation when it comes to self-promotion and Honda in many ways reflects this. The country's third-largest carmaker and the world's largest motorcycle maker seldom broadcasts its achievements. This seems a pity. Founded in 1948, Honda now has 70 manufacturing sites in 27 countries. This week the firm announced plans to expand its luxury arm Acura into the UAE, Saudi, Russia and Ukraine.
Wallpaper* travelled to the heart of the operation to see what else the company has in store. Our first stop, the old-school Twin Ring Motegi racetrack surrounded by lush countryside, is an hour from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Honda built it in 1997 to introduce the American open-wheel racing IndyCar Series to Japan.
The site's Honda Collection Hall is a museum of the traditional sort. It showcases restored motorcycles, cars and Honda's robot research - which began in 1986 with the rather clunky E0 but later evolved into the almost human ASIMO - Honda's Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility robot.
But we were there to drive. We started with Honda's small N-Box mini-van, built for the Asian market. It's only 4m long, yet its innovative interior layout means the cabin and boot are roomy. These kei-class cars look almost gadget-like, and driving them was child's play. An upright seating position added to the feeling of invincibility.
We also tried the Brio, a tiny commuter car designed for the Indian and Thai markets, and the zero-emission FCX Clarity. Honda built the latter, its first hydrogen fuel-cell car, in 2008 but never mass-produced it - a shame, as it has super-steady acceleration and emits a satisfying jet-engine roar.
Honda's 'Wako' innovation hub is back in Tokyo and closed to visitors, but we managed to get a rare peek. What struck us first was the confident Japanese aesthetics of the EV-STER, a small sportscar Honda plans to put into production. 'I wanted this to be a car that would make car lovers smile and make young people who are not yet into cars think: wow, it's a really cool vehicle,' said Ryo Sugiura, who oversaw EV-STER's look. The futuristic cabin features twin lever steering, a kind of push-and-pull system that Honda feels could replace the conventional steering wheel.
Next we saw the AC-X (Advanced Cruiser Experience), a clever concept that offers two driving modes. When it's in auto-drive, for autonomous cruising, the steering column retracts into the dashboard, an ottoman appears and the interior illuminates to create a relaxed living-room feel. Outside, the front bumper, rear diffuser and front running lights adjust to the mode.
At Wako we got the chance to examine the electric RC-E motorbike, based on the classic RC racing-bike series. They also rolled out the Micro Commuter Concept, a tiny electric commuter which can be customised by sliding graphic sheets across the front, side and rear panels.
And finally: the robot. Honda's ASIMO is a gender-neutral autonomous machine capable of responding to the movement of people and its surroundings. It can even predict future movement using its pre-set space sensors: if it anticipates a collision, it will stop what it's doing and change tack.
Coordination between visual and auditory sensors enables ASIMO to distinguish voices from one another. At four-foot-three and 54kg, ASIMO resembles a young boy and has a boy's agility, too. The combination of strong legs, an expanded range of movements and a newly developed control technology enables it to run forwards and backwards, react mid-stride and adjust its steps to varied terrain. It can pick up a bottle, open the cap, hold a soft paper cup and pour liquid into it. It even knows sign language.
ASIMO's raison d'etre is to aid the elderly and disabled. As we prepared to leave, we were shown a self-propelled robot arm, a foldaway electric Motor Combo scooter and a Uni-Cub, a compact one-wheel-drive mobility device that uses gyroscopic stabilising to provide movement in all directions - a glimpse into the near future.