What an amazing confluence of technologies, rivalries, and opportunities begat the Honda Insight. Honda, the world's foremost manufacturer of internal combustion engines, has historically been first to comply with ever stricter emissions and fuel consumption standards. From lawnmowers to championship racing cars, Honda's engines have enjoyed unparalleled success. And unlike most large corporations, Honda uses their technology to pursue ecologically positive goals.
However, just as Honda was busy passing Nissan to become the number two auto manufacturer in Japan, Toyota released their gas/electric hybrid Prius into the Japanese market. Although it was obvious that Toyota was losing money on each Prius, Honda didn't want this car to claim the high ground in the automotive ecology battle. It was time for Honda to put some of its own show car technology on the road.
Actually, Honda already had established the high ground by bringing their four-seat electric EV-Plus to the California electric-car shoot-out (actually a complicated legislative carrot/stick kinda thing). GM's two-seat Impact, er, EV-1 was the only other contestant, but neither was really the winner because batteries alone still can't cut the mustard in the real world. Neither electric car is still being manufactured.
Meanwhile, Honda, long accustomed to being top dog in whatever form of auto racing it attempts, decided to demonstrate its aerodynamic design prowess and electric motor technology by blowing away the best the world's universities and corporations could muster in the worldwide competition for solar powered vehicles in Australia.
At the very top of Honda's pyramid of transportation offerings is the NSX, the first all-aluminum sports car. It's V-6 engine isn't a V-8 because the 6 is lighter and would produce enough horsepower for the lightweight car (OK, they've admitted they'll put a V-8 in the next one). Building this low-volume car gave Honda valuable real-world experience with the production of aluminum vehicles that would not be possible with a lower-priced mass-production car because of the increased expense of aluminum construction.
Seeking to marry their internal-combustion engine and electric motor technologies, Honda dreamed up a different kind of hybrid. Different in the sense that it's not what many postulated a hybrid would be: an engine running a generator that charges a battery, which, in turn, powers one or more electric motors that provide all propulsion. With this system, you need a large, heavy battery pack or your engine must be able to power the motors after the battery runs dry (probably just as you're starting to pass someone on that rare level straight in the mountains).
Honda began showing their Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) concept in the J-VX concept car that appeared at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show. This radically styled little car employed an "ultra-capacitor" to store the charge generated by the electric generator/motor between the three-cylinder internal-combustion engine and the gearbox. This ultra-capacitor had the advantage of being able to return its charge to the generator/motor faster than a rechargeable battery.
The hopes for a small-displacement electrically supercharged pocket rocket similar to the J-VX were high, but the ultra-capacitor didn't lend itself to use in a production vehicle due to cost and danger factors (how does a fully charged ultra-capacitor behave in an accident?). The body, though fantastic looking, didn't take advantage of Honda's extensive aerodynamic know-how. A nifty styling and engineering exercise, the J-VX was not destined for production, but it provided a glimpse of the Honda's gas/electric hybrid technology.
What interesting meetings must have taken place around this time at Honda. I believe Honda is accustomed to being able to price their cars higher than the competition for a variety of reasons, but to ensure victory in the race for the world's most efficient gasoline-powered hybrid car, they would have to pull out all the stops and abandon profit.
Did that stop Honda? No, it didn't. They put their high-tech aerodynamics, aluminum construction, internal-combustion engine, and electric motor technologies together to produce a comfortable real-world ultra-high-mileage car that would exact few penalties other than the lack of rear seats and serious cargo capacity.
But what was the decision process that led to the big OK? Whose idea was it? Was that person the car's primary champion? Who was the most powerful force against the Insight? What benefits does Honda expect to reap by demonstrating its mastery of the leading edge of automotive technology? Honda must believe strongly in this breakthrough project to accept the loss of thousands and thousands of dollars on every car.
Then, after the negative budgets are approved, how did the engineers decide to allocate the resources? How did they decide where to draw the line? For example, the J-VX had a direct-injection fuel system but the Insight engineers decided that the mileage gains achieved with direct-injection were not significant enough to justify the cost. But the Insight contains many expensive weight-saving parts, such as the aluminum brake drums on the rear wheels, that were deemed "included."
So it's clear that the weight-saving team carried some clout in this project. Logical, considering that given everything else equal, a lighter car will get better gas mileage than a heavier one. So they built an amazing aluminum body from an assortment of custom extrusions. And they designed lightweight aluminum suspension. A magnesium oil pan supports the lightest 1-liter gas engine in the world. Where the strength of aluminum was not required, they went still lighter with plastic.
Who, then, decided that they'd saved enough weight to add power steering? Light weight is it's own form of power steering. Why does an 1,800-lb car need power steering? And power mirrors? And power windows? And power door locks? None of them save gas.
But I didn't complain about the greater weight of the air conditioning system because I like air conditioning. I've been doing fine in my two CRXs over the past 14 years without all the power accessories, but I've got to have that A/C. But compared to the mileage hit from the weight and power drain of an air conditioner, the electric steering, mirrors, windows, and locks are small fry. And Honda's not building a Nash Rambler here. Include the power comforts, I'll use 'em.
Coincident with the development of the Insight was the development of the Honda S2000 with its conventional steel body and unconventional engine. Both cars use Honda's VTEC technology to achieve unprecedented results; more miles per gallon for the Insight and more power per cubic centimeter for the S2000. The natural place to build both cars was at the Toguchi factory, producer of Honda's top car, the NSX. This factory is used to building aluminum high-performance cars.
It has to be difficult to bring this much technology together for the first time to build a car that can be sold in the real world. That must be why Honda missed their self-imposed deadline to deliver Insights "to Honda dealerships across the country this December."
The design of every car represents the culmination of many, many engineering and feature trade-offs even before the price and profit factors enter the equation. When you specify lightness, crash worthiness, and 70 mpg fuel economy as your top priorities, there aren't many things left to trade off. Your choices of materials are restricted to expensive lightweight aluminum and plastic; steel is out. You can't just downsize the engine to achieve fuel economy because the car would be too slow. Then, when you add a gas/electric hybrid propulsion system to achieve the required fuel economy, you've got to lose more weight somewhere else to compensate for the additional poundage of the electric motor, control electronics, and batteries. In no time, you're specifying things like aluminum brake drums, a lightened gear box, an all-aluminum chassis and a plastic and aluminum body.
I cannot commend Honda highly enough for taking the profit factor out of the equation. The incomparable Honda engineering team has done a marvelous job of balancing the physical trade-offs to create a car like no other in the hundred-odd years of the automobile and Honda management has bought into the project in a big, big way by pricing the Insight below $20,000. In reality, it should cost more than the $32,000 S2000 sports car, but Honda knew I couldn't afford a car that expensive (they must have read the Insight survey answers I submitted on their website) and made the ultimate trade-off: a fantastic car that will make no profit.
What US auto company would ever consider such a radical idea? Hopefully, the Honda Insight will be so successful that every other car company will have to respond in kind. It will be very interesting to see how close they come to the Insight's amazing abilities.