Honda Americas R&D Chief: Our Cars Won’t Crash After 2040

Honda FCV Concept

Honda, like other automakers, has taken to calling itself a “mobility company.” Which sounds a bit highbrow until you consider the sheer number of things the company makes. Outboard motors. Riding mowers. Motorcycles. Minivans. A freaking jet airplane. Speaking at the SAE World Congress last week, Honda R&D Americas president Frank Paluch outlined Honda’s vision for the next 35 years of vehicular travel. Let’s just say that it’s ambitious.

Thirty-five years ago, we were just coming out of the haze that was the ’70s. BMW had yet to introduce the E30 3-series. GM was finalizing development on its J platform, which reached its ultimate evolution in the form of the Cimarron. Chrysler’s K-cars were just about to appear. “Minivan” was a term yet to be coined. “SUV” wasn’t even a thing, much less “SAV” or four-door coupe. “Hybrid” was something to do with horticulture. AMG was a little hot-rod/race shop in Affalterbach, and C3 Corvettes were down to making exactly zero horsepower at any rpm. The Camry had yet to be unleashed upon the world. Elon was a mere Musklet, and you could read Car and Driver only once a month. All Paluch is suggesting is that the next 35 years will see Honda vehicles talk to each other, talk to infrastructure, stop killing people, ease congestion, and send you hurtling down the San Joaquin Valley at 186 mph like you’re Don Prudhomme at Famoso.

Paluch envisions the rollout in phases, the first only five years out, which suggests that Honda is very close to production deployment. By 2020, he suggests that we’ll see vehicles connected to each other and to infrastructure in such a way that will see a 50-percent reduction in accidents involving Honda vehicles.

Ten years after that, all road users will be connected, including bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists. By 2040, Honda-connected vehicles would be accident-free, which allows for things like express lanes for connected vehicles, enabling automated travel at autobahn-grade speeds between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In thirty-five years’ time, cars will merge into a semi-sentient hive mind, a direct precursor to the rise of the machines, which will send all of us to our ultimate end as slaves of Hondanet.

We made that last bit up; Paluch sees it in a much more positive light, saying, “With the advancement of learning, sensing, and communication, in both cars and infrastructure, we will move into a new realm, a cooperative car society, in which the highly automated vehicle becomes a platform for the transformed mobility experience.”

And despite the battery-electric vehicle being the clean machine of the moment, Paluch is still betting on hydrogen fuel cells as the power source of the future. Paired with smart grids and photovoltaic arrays, Paluch sees it something like this: “My FCV is connected to my smart home energy system, supplementing the grid and acting as part of a distributed energy network that includes wind and locally generated solar power. In the event of a blackout, my car functions as a home backup generator. And now I am living the low-carbon dream, driving and living with net-zero grid energy and zero CO2 emissions.”

It all seems to echo what green-vehicle advocates and proponents of self-driving cars have been saying for the past decade. The real question is, how do we get that infrastructure built? How does government keep pace with technology in an arena when people’s lives are on the line? What incentives will we offer people to switch. In 35 years, the vast majority of cars sold today will be off the road; we’ll have almost completely cycled through our fleet, save for owners of beloved sports cars and pickup trucks. Because it’s always the sports car and pickup truck guys who wind up vehicular hoarders. And while there are serious issues to be worked out when it comes to sensor arrays working in inclement weather, the real hurdles here are legislative and legal. Paluch’s guys are engineers. All they have to do is invent the stuff. It’s up the rest of us to figure out how it’s actually going to work.

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