MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – Established over a decade before the latest influx of automotive companies looking to forge ties with California’s high-tech industry, Honda’s Silicon Valley Lab here showcases not only designs born from collaboration between the two, but also the collaborative process itself.
The Mountain View research and development center relocated earlier this year to a new and more expansive 35,000-sq.-ft. (3,250-sq.-m) site. It has evolved under the notion that, when it comes to automotive connectivity, “the car industry is not necesssarily the leader,” whereas the high-tech field “obviously is,” Nick Sugimoto, senior program director, tells WardsAuto during an interview.
The facility has become “a catalyst to promote the chemical reaction between Silicon Valley and Honda engineers,” he adds.
The task of bringing the two industries together hasn’t been seamless, Sugimoto explains, because of the widely different ways each approaches R&D.
Whereas auto industry R&D follows an average 5-year cycle of incremental advances and testing before a product is deemed ready for market, in Silicon Valley “their typical cycle is six months (to) launch new versions, not necessarily new products, but new versions every three to six months.
“Car R&D is more structured and disciplined. Silicon Valley is ‘Just do it and try and see how it goes and improve,” Sugimoto says. “Two different cultures, totally different worlds.”
During the early days of the Silicon Valley Lab, many at Honda were caught off-guard by how those in high tech tend to view the automobile itself.
Those on the auto side see smartphones as accessories to the car, but in Silicon Valley “they regard the car as an accessory, one of many devices connected to the smartphone,” Sugimoto says. “That was actually our biggest cultural gap.”
Catching Spirit of Founder
Then again, Sugimoto, a trained mechanical engineer who helmed an online publishing company before taking the reins of the lab in 2005, also sees strong similarities between the entrepreneurial spirit that he says drives so many high-tech innovators and that of Honda’s founder, Soichiro Honda, whose vision saw his fledgling auto-parts supply company grow first to become a motorized bicycle maker and then into the global automaker it is today.
“Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, their goal is to change the world,” Sugimoto says, maintaining
he and his team “are not only introducing technology innovations to Honda, but influencing people and hopefully creating change agents for Honda to become more entrepreneurial and more progressive.”
Operated under Honda R&D Americas, which creates advanced products and technologies for the Honda and Acura brands, the lab launched in 2000 as a relatively traditional research outpost, charged with exploring new technologies not necessarily intended for vehicle enhancements.
The operation shifted about five years later toward a venture-capital effort aimed at reaching and funding area innovators.
Then, in 2011, the center further honed its focus on collaborating with high-tech designers by assuming a more proactive role in the creative process, leading to its current emphasis on the development of technologies for connected mobility and alternative human-machine interfaces.
Emergent technologies produced through those new collaborative relationships include:
- The Honda UNI-CUB, a motorized, single-wheel personal transporter that looks like a unicycle out of a sci-fi movie.
- A motion-detecting interface designed to control a vehicle’s secondary functions such as raising and lowering windows, adjusting rearview mirrors and opening the trunk.
- A dashboard port where a plugged-in smartphone, accessed with buttons on the steering wheel, is used to manage the vehicle’s core functions.
- An onboard entertainment system in which passengers wearing wired optical headsets experience the sensations of passing through virtual 3-D land, air and water realities, all in sync with the vehicle’s actual motion.
Google Car Not Alone in Silicon Valley
Then there’s the ’16 Honda Accord.
Billed as the most technologically advanced version of what has been the top-selling midsize car in California, the new Accord offers an array of high-tech improvements, including Honda Sensing, a set of safety and driver-assist technologies to reduce driver workload and avoid, or at least lessen, the severity of vehicle collisions.
But it’s the car’s inclusion of both the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay phone-integration systems that signals a new era of rapid prototyping for auto app development that Sugimoto says already has helped Honda product teams in Japan speed up the R&D process.
Tech market analyst International Data estimates 83% of the smartphone market through this year’s second quarter was claimed by Google’s Android operating system, while 13.9% went to Apple’s iOS.
Data from analyst IHS suggests nearly 40 million cars will be equipped with Android Auto and 37.1 million with CarPlay by 2020.
Honda’s own research concludes 70%-80% of all new vehicles will carry both systems in the near future, meaning app developers seeking to cover the market essentially will need to create only two versions of their products, as opposed to the myriad variants they often write now for individual manufacturers, “which is totally inefficient,” Sugimoto says.
With a more streamlined innovation process, he contends, “the car will become an app platform.”
The lab offers support to developers through the Honda Developer Studio, an online portal and open innovation workspace through which outside designers work directly with Honda engineers to create apps that are road-ready and then test them on prototype vehicles.
Likewise, the recently launched Honda Xcelerator initiative assists innovators in getting their technologies to market at an accelerated pace, as the name implies. It gives participants the chance to introduce their inventions to Honda business teams throughout the world once their prototypes are completed.
Silicon Valley has long stood as “an organic expression of people coming together” and the Honda lab strives to become an extension of that environment, says Sugimoto. The automaker’s goal is to show the high-tech innovator community “we are serious about collaboration, to innovate future mobility with you guys,” he says. “‘Come join us.’ That's the message.”