Reading a lot of carmaker press releases changes you. It’s not an immediate change, but something more akin to how a river wears down a jagged rock into a smooth, streamlined river stone. In this analogy, the river is the never ending flow of carmaker press releases chock full of bullshit, and the initial rock is your outlook with a healthy, craggy coating to protect you against cynicism. The resulting, smooth rock is how you now see the world, worn down so all that’s left is cynical skepticism. At least, that’s how most press releases work. This Honda press release – maybe it’s more of an article?– about the early development of its electric vehicle projects is unique, though, because it expresses frustration and failure so boldly and unashamedly that I have to respect it. Hell, it talks about how a project leader wanted to chuck a prototype in a hole and bury it! How often do you hear that from a company?
The press release chronicles the early development of Honda’s electric vehicle program, and makes it very clear that not only did Honda lack the expertise to build an EV, but the company was one of the last to the game, too:
“However, Honda had no previous experience with electric powerplants. Also, at the time not much research was being done with regard to alternative-fuel vehicles. Therefore, we decided to take up the challenge of making an electric vehicle.
It was soon apparent, though, that several companies in Japan and overseas had already commercialized the concept of an electric vehicle. For this, the staff at Honda had the first and second oil crises to thank. In fact, Honda was the last to join the race.”
Honda put together a team, led by Large Project Leader (LPL) Junichi Araki, and work began on an EV prototype. Using an off-the-shelf motor and lead-acid batteries, the team converted a three-door Civic and demonstrated the working proof-of-concept car to Araki in July of 1991.
Now, most carmaker-written histories would describe an early development project like this by saying things like “from these humble beginnings, a great project grew,” or “a great deal was learned from these early experiments” or something like that. Something that puts a positive spin on things. What you’re not likely to see is something like this:
“I was yelling, ‘You call this a car? What the heck did you just make? Why don’t you just dig a hole, and bury it!'”
Araki then spent about two hours explaining the reason for his outrage, saying that at first glance it was obvious that the car was “a compromise; an excuse for having had no previous experience.”
“As long as we continue trying a variety of measures in a project, each car we produce must constitute a learning experience that leads to the next step,” Araki said. “If a car doesn’t lead to greater experience, we might as well not build it. I was so disappointed that they hadn’t put more passion into the project.”
“The team members were deeply shamed and mortified.”
“The shame and regret the members experienced at the LPL’s outrage after seeing this vehicle became the motivating force behind ideas and inventions for the future development of electric vehicles.”
Holy shit, right?
I mean, that converted Civic prototype, called the Clean Urban Vehicle 4 (CUV-4) was, charitably, garbage. With lead-acid batteries the thing only had a range of about 30 miles, and the packaging, as you can see in that diagram up there, sucked.
I can’t think of another time I’ve read anything this stark and brutal from a carmaker’s own mouth. Shame, regret, mortified, chucking a car into a hole – hot damn, this is some spicy stuff for the normally eye-rollingly upbeat world of what car companies write about themselves.
And, even if Honda isn’t quite the go-to name for EVs just yet, the unflinching harshness did pay off in innovation, as was seen in the car that was the direct successor to all of the shame and mortification: the 1997 Honda EV Plus, which was the first commercial EV to be sold that didn’t use lead-acid batteries – sure, General Motors’ EV-1 got to market in 1996, but it used those heavy, old-school lead-acid batteries at first, where the Honda used the then-new nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. The EV-1 switched to NiMH batteries in 1999.
The Honda EV Plus also was the first to really define the layout that almost all modern EVs use today (though it’s fairly logical, really): pack the batteries into the floor of the car. The strange, kinda-tall look of the EV Plus was due to the fact that its kinda thick NiMH battery pack was set low, under the floor of the passenger compartment, just like it is on something like a Tesla Model Y or VW ID.4 or even Honda’s new Prologue, built on GM’s platform. This was the template for all future EV design to follow, and, significantly, even GM’s EV-1 didn’t do it like this.
I just have to hand it to Honda for not just its early technical achievements in EVs, but for having the corporate ‘nads to tell the whole story, and show how sometimes making something that is so unignorably crap is what has to happen to get people motivated enough to make something that’s actually good.
It’s hilarious that Hondas first EV prototype could only get 30 miles range.
Alan Cocconi, founder of AC Propulsion who not only designed the inverter for the GM Impact, but also the control/motor technology that Tesla eventually licensed for use in its first Roadsters, around the same time that Honda made this craptastic prototype, Alan made an EV conversion of a Honda CRX that still holds up okay by today’s standards.
In 1992, he converted a CRX HF to electric, did some aerodynamic modifications to lower the drag coefficient to 0.25(mainly, underbody panelling, grille block, and wheel discs), and then reinfored the chassis to allow it to fit more than a half ton of lead acid batteries. Using 28 Optima D750 Yellowtop batteries in series for a 336V pack, with his drive system, he was able to build a conversion that could accelerate from 0-60 mph in around 6 seconds. The car had 200 horsepower. Range per charge in city driving approached 140 miles, although at 70 mph on the highway it was somewhere around 80-100 miles(at least in good weather). No fancy battery technology needed!
You’d think a multi-billion dollar conglomerate like Honda could do better. And really, they could. The people tasked with the EV prototype really had no vision. The NiMH batteries used in the EV+ could have doubled Alan Cocconi’s range with the right engineering talent behind the product.
I have seen a few different EV CRX conversions, the chassis seems to lend itself well to it. That and the Saturn SL.
The CRX is the superior platform of the two, due to its low weight and more slippery aerodynamics. A bone stock CRX HF has a drag coefficient of 0.29. As EV conversions, with no efficiency tweaks on the aero or the tires, this is a car that will consume around 200 Wh/mile. This compares favorably to a modern Tesla Model 3. The Model 3 has a similar overall CdA because it has a lower drag coefficient but significantly larger frontal area than the CRX, and weighs an extra half ton over a converted CRX, where most of its increased consumption comes from. Put a modern Tesla Model 3 drive system into a CRX by converting it to rear drive, do some aeromods to get the drag coefficient down, use low rolling resistance tires, and you could have quite a fun little death trap!
Hell, the Lucas-Reliant PHEV concept from 1982 could do 40 miles on its lead acid batteries (and, of course, it also had a Reliant 850 4-cylinder on board, which would give a couple of hundred miles beyond that when the batteries were out).
“…the 1997 Honda EV Plus, which was the first commercial EV to be sold that didn’t use lead-acid batteries…”
There were no EV Plus cars actually sold, they were all leased, just like the EV1’s. And upon lease termination, they were all crushed, just like the EV1’s. Funny though, no one ever made a movie vilifying Honda as the most irresponsible car company of all time for having done so.
show how sometimes making something that is so unignorably crap is what has to happen to get people motivated enough to make something that’s actually good.
This is how I work. “Gods, I hate that, why didn’t I do better?”
Then I proceed to spend about 10x the cost and 50x the hours doing it.
No wonder none of my shit is finished
“Corporate ‘Nads” is a pretty good band name.
That’s shitty management by Araki, if you ask me. Yelling at his subordinates because the team he was responsible for did a poor job? There are ways to tell people they’ve failed without abusing them, and a good manager takes responsibility when the project they are managing goes poorly. I mean, why did it go badly? What needed to be done differently next time? Did they need to bring in outside expertise, did they need to be supervised more closely, did they need to be given clearer design goals, what? Just telling them they should feel ashamed for themselves helps nothing, plus it destroys the team’s morale and breeds resentment toward their manager, who ideally should be seen as a partner in the enterprise.
The only time I need to yell at work is if somebody is about to get hurt. Otherwise, quiet words can make my views as clear as crystal.
Tell me you know nothing about Japanese corporate culture without telling me you know nothing about Japanese corporate culture.
These engineers were probably forced to stand on a street corner wearing “ribbons of shame” while screaming their failures out to passersby.
I am perfectly aware that abuse of subordinates by managers is common in Japanese corporate culture. It’s common in Western corporate culture as well. Just because it’s common and accepted doesn’t make it not abuse, and it fucking definitely doesn’t make it good management.
I’ve taken enough Anthropology classes to have been introduced to the concept of cultural relativism, and I’ve been a thinking person in the world long enough to have concluded that it’s a bunch of bullshit. Don’t be a dick. No excuses.
Oh, I didn’t say it was an excuse, just that it’s a thing. If they only got yelled at, in Japan, they got off easy, that’s all.
At least after the yelling, he spent 2 hours going over why he was disappointed in the project!
The only time I yelled at a subordinate the poor guy up & fainted on me! I called 911 and never tried that tactic again.
I’ve been yelled at, but have never passed out (for that reason, at least).
I worked for a Japanese supplier for a long time, and “shame and regret” still gives me some PTSD haha
Did they ever make you wear shame ribbons around the office?
“I like you. You make me laugh.”
I bet they all felt a bit better when they saw the Mini Cooper SE hit the market, though.
The world needs more people who will look you in the eye and say, “Sorry. I made a mistake.”
I am so glad that I work for a lead and a company that does not punish for mistakes, and it makes for pushing the limits to see what can be done in a way that hasn’t been done before. It is a huge thing.
The problem was that they weren’t pushing the limits, they just stuffed some batteries and a motor into a Civic. High school Auto Shop classes do that just as well.
Given that Araki was the project leader, where was he when they were cobbling together that first homebrew style electric Civic? Wasn’t he having discussions and interaction as things were going along? Did they even have a discussion about which battery tech would be best for that purpose? I’m guessing not. And whose fault is that? His.
So he had no business yelling at his team in my view.
Unfortunately, from what I heard from folks who worked in Japan in the 90’s, this was pretty much in line with the corporate culture. Men worked long hours and women were expected to quit working when they got married or had a baby. It was not uncommon for the office group to get hammered at a bar, then go back for a couple more hours of work. I’m sure that time was very productive…
In 1999 I lived in Tsukuba Japan and attended the Tokyo Auto Show. Many cars there blew my mind, especially the S2000 and the Honda Insight. As a big CRX fan, I took one look at it and promised myself to damn well get one. By 2004 I was back in the States and bought a mint, 7000 miles “Citron” Insight and was thrilled about it. Almost immediately though there were concerns about its ground breaking hybrid drivetrain.
After a year of irritating battery recalibration events Honda grudgingly replaced the IMA battery under warranty. Things were fine for a couple years then the events began cropping up again and Honda replaced the battery, this time without as much push-back. Another couple years passed, the battery warranty ended and exactly one week later the dread IMA Error light came on. Honda told me to go pound sand. I then purchased and installed a Bumblebee Battery myself for an eye watering $2500 cha-ching. That battery had a two year warranty, failing a month before its warranty was over and the vender sent me another. Two years later and THAT battery failed. All this over 150,000 miles.
I’m thrilled to see NiMh batteries in cars recede into the dim pages of history books. That really soured me on hybrids & Hondas for a long time, and I was a platinum grade Honda fanboi. If someone made a Li-Ion or LiPo battery conversion for the 1st gen Insight I’d totally buy another as they’re really cool cars.
Point being: I’d like to kick whoever spec’ed NiMh batteries in the taco. They really should’ve been forward thinking enough to make the system more future proof, perhaps with open specifications and a more accessible battery pack.
NiMH can be reliable and durable… but the key is proper battery management as Toyota demonstrated in the Prius. Prius battery packs often last 10 years/200,000 miles or more.
The problem with the Insight was Honda didn’t sweat the details to get the battery management right.
So much this. There are a ton of 15 year old Priuses out there with hundreds of thousands of miles on their NiMH packs.
I’m betting that when Toyota announced the Prius there were a number of people at Honda who threw similar temper tantrums to the one in this article.
Re. ‘a big CRX fan’
Funny backwards coincidence – that’s exactly what i thought when i first laid eyes on the CRX! An instantly likeable shape that looks pretty good even now,thirty years later.
Unfortunately i was never able to afford one.
These days they’re really rare in my part of the world.In the last 20 years i can only remember seeing one- a higher spec model in red.With it’s slightly lower suspension and wider wheels it looked almost perfect.
Did someone say CRX?
Car and Driver said even the prototype had better fit and finish than a GM production car 😀
Anyway, at least Honda learns from their mistakes.
“…the initial rock is your outlook with a healthy, craggy coating to protect you against cynicism. The resulting, smooth rock is how you now see the world, worn down so all that’s left is cynical skepticism.”
Speaking as a geologist, this is an entirely accurate description of how Nature produces geologists.
I’d like to believe this story is 100% true.The japanese are infamous for throwing pressure on each other this way. And Honda especially have a reputation for pushing their engineers hard.
But wouldnt it really have happened? Did the project leader really have no clue what they were up to?
Either way well done Honda for not feeding us the usual PR BS
That is cool. I am glad he didn’t accept it, because that first prototype was even lazier than ‘Lectric Leopards of yore. Like he says, pointless and solving literally nothing.
In college (late 70’s) we had a guy demonstrate a diy EV conversion — a Datsun pickup with a bed-full of lead and an aircraft starter motor joined to its manual 4-speed.
The most obvious issue was smooth starts — he’d set the motor spinning and drop the clutch, noisily laying a patch of rubber every time.
If the CUV-4 project guys implemented electronics to successfully throttle the motor, they may have accomplished at least *something* useful?