Honda Emerges as Major Proponent of Plug-in Cars

By · November 29, 2010

Honda Fit EV introduction at 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show

Honda's announcement that it will produce the Fit EV by 2012 was arguably the most important story of the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Taking a trip back to the future, Honda announced at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show that it plans to produce an all-electric version of the Honda Fit by 2012. The main message from company executives was that Honda is not new to EVs or other electric-drive vehicles—having unveiled its prior pure battery electric car, the EV Plus, 13 years ago on the very same stage at the 1997 Los Angeles Auto Show.

The company pointed out its impressive timeline of battery-powered breakthroughs, including the Honda Insight, the first hybrid gas-electric car offered in the United States, to the FCX Clarity fuel cell electric vehicle. “We use these different platforms as a continuous learning platform,” said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda. He added, “We’re continuing to push the envelop on these new technologies,” referring to not only the Fit EV concept, but the two-motor plug-in hybrid system that Honda also unveiled in Los Angeles.

Honda talks about the Fit EV as part of its ongoing legacy.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Honda announcement is the emphatic manner in which it stated its support for plug-in vehicles—after nearly complete silence on electric cars and plug-in hybrid for the past several years. Mendel said “electric vehicles are entering the mainstream for consumers” and that Honda’s EV and PHEV technology “leapfrogs on a number of different fronts the competition in the marketplace.”

No Doubts about Big Demand

Minutes after the unveiling of the Fit EV, I spoke with Elmer Hardy, Honda’s senior manager of alternative vehicles. “We truly totally committed to producing this vehicle and making it available on the streets of the U.S.,” Hardy said. “I suspect the biggest challenge will be meeting demand. We anticipate that the public is ready for electric vehicles, and expect great demand.”

What are the chances that Honda will come through with an electric car? 100 percent.

He said that Honda’s thinking had not really changed about electric cars, but suggested, “There’s a different feel in the marketplace, the government and the public.”

Honda declined to speak about production volume, but made a deliberate point to use two different numbers for the Fit EV’s range: 100 miles as a general principle, and 70 miles of range under adjusted EPA guidelines. The Fit EV will come with three modes—econ, normal and sport—an approach adapted from the 2011 Honda CR-Z sport hybrid. The modes will allow drivers to reduce accelerator response in order to maximize range.

The Fit EV utilizes the same 5-passenger layout found in the popular Fit hatchback, and the high-density motor derived from the FCX Clarity fuel cell electric vehicle. The Fit EV promises a top speed of 90 mph. The Fit EV will have a connectivity system—similar to other new EVs—allowing drivers to remotely view the vehicle's state of charge, initiate charging and activate the air conditioning, set charging notifications and alerts to optimize utility rates, provide 24-hour roadside assistance, and view a public charging station locator.

In this Honda-produced video about connectivity, the company coins a new phrase: "location anxiety."

Not Just EV, but also PHEV

Honda also unveiled its new two-motor plug-in hybrid system designed for a mid-size platform. “Plug-in hybrid technology is a bridge technology leading us to ultimately CO2-free vehicles,” said William Walton, manager of product planning at Honda. The Honda two-motor system continuously shifts between three different modes to maximize efficiency: all-electric, gasoline-electric and an “engine direct-drive mode,” in which only the engine drives the wheels during high-speed driving.

The plug-in hybrid uses a 6 kWh lithium-ion battery, a 120 kW electric motor, and a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine with a Continuously Variable Transmission (E-CVT). The all-electric mode achieves a range of approximately 10-15 miles in city driving and a top speed of 62 mph. Fully recharging the battery will take 2 to 2.5 hours using a 120-volt outlet and 1 to 1.5 hours using a 240-volt outlet.

The new two-motor system represents a big step up in vehicle electrification from Honda’s IMA mild hybrid approach. It opens the possibility for full hybrids, as well as plug-in hybrids. Other Honda officials told me that the company believes that hybrids, both with and without plugs, will be bigger sellers than pure electric cars for decades to come. In fact, over the weekend, Japan’s Nikkei reported that in fiscal year 2011—that's next year, folks—Honda plans for hybrids to account for about 23 percent of its Japanese sales.

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