TOKYO -- In the new era of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, Honda Motor Co. is planning its own transition from metal-bender to software-coder from this airy loft high above Tokyo with a lounge-like atmosphere and panoramic views of the capital to inspire its workers.
The goal: Rekindle the innovative spirit that drove the Japanese automaker to push the envelope with new products such as the pint-sized Asimo bipedal robot or the omnidirectional motorized Uni-Cub, a unicycle-cum-office stool that riders control by leaning their bodies.
Opening the doors of the downtown Honda Innovation Lab Tokyo to reporters for the first time on Tuesday, Honda announced it will also be forming a new r&d unit to tackle the next generation of software-heavy technologies that will drive the future of automobiles.
Dubbed R&D Center X, the new technology development group starts up in April and will focus on robotics, mobility systems, energy management and artificial intelligence.
Yoshiyuki Matsumoto, president of Honda R&D Co. and a senior managing director at the Honda Motor parent company, said the new r&d arm could deliver its first results in robotics over the next year and something new for autonomous driving by 2020. The focus will be on collaborating with outside companies and quick decision-making, like a Silicon Valley startup.
“It’s not going to be research for the sake of research,” Matsumoto said.
Tapping outside expertise, Honda will hire Edward Feigenbaum, a computer science and artificial intelligent professor from Stanford University, as a R&D Center X adviser. Feigenbaum said Honda, and all Japan Inc., must change with the times to focus more on software.
Software, he said, adds tremendous value but is “being ignored in Japan.”
“Just look at where the wealth is. It’s in the software area, not in the hardware area. Hardware is more like a commodity, and it’s in software where the major margins are,” he said.
Honda’s announcement comes as automakers worldwide scramble to acquire the software and artificial intelligence expertise essential to self-driving cars and advanced safety systems.
Honda is already dueling in its own backyard against bigger Japanese rivals Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., which are aggressively expanding in the field.
Toyota has invested $1 billion in its U.S.-based Toyota Research Institute to develop artificial intelligence for robots and cars. Meanwhile, Nissan is rolling out a technology it calls “Seamless Autonomous Mobility,” which partners in-vehicle artificial intelligence with human support to help autonomous vehicles make decisions in unpredictable situations.
In the United States, Ford Motor Co. said it will invest $1 billion over the next five years in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company based in Pittsburgh.
The stakes for Honda, as a midsize automaker with limited resources, couldn’t be higher. It sees the R&D Center X as a way to stake a claim in the sector and to attract partners.
“We will leave our doors wide open and collaborate with anyone,” Matsumoto said, adding Honda has already been approached by some 800 firms and individuals hoping to collaborate.
It is further evidence of a change in corporate culture at Honda. Traditionally, Japan’s No. 3 automaker stuck to its own devices in developing technologies in house.
But the industry is changing so rapidly with the influx of new technologies and interloping competitors from Silicon Valley that Honda concedes it can no longer go it alone.
“Their r&d burden is heavy,” said Kurt Sanger, an auto analyst with Deutsche Securities Japan in Tokyo. “Their traditional partners have been metal benders. They need new friends.”
Open collaboration and cultivating a startup mentality are key to the new venture. Indeed, the X in Center X stands for “the unknown,” as Honda plunges ahead with reinventing itself.
In its quest for “new,” for instance, Honda opts for the term “cooperative intelligence” instead of artificial intelligence. Matsumoto said cooperative intelligence is more apt because it describes a way for humans and machines to grow together through shared experiences and empathy.
The R&D Center X will be a global r&d hub separate from the six that focus on segments such as automobiles, motorcycles and power products. It will share some resources with the Honda Innovation Lab Tokyo, which Honda opened last year to focus on artificial intelligence.
“Keeping the organization as flat as possible, we will work with greater speed,” Matsumoto said.
The Innovation Lab tries to recreate the free-flowing interplay that nurtures originality in Silicon Valley. Its front door opens into a sunny cafe lounge overlooking bustling downtown Tokyo.
A plethora of plants, green carpet, woody flooring and panorama windows create an invigorating environment for brainstorming. Need to clear your head or dig for fresh inspiration? Sidle up to the window-side booth seating and pull a book from the in-house library where topics range from wine to sushi and include such titles as “Your Private Sky” by Buckminster Fuller.
Being based in Tokyo, rather than Silicon Valley, has its advantage, Feigenbaum said.
Chief among them is being able to tap Japan’s legions of well-trained university graduates. Automakers setting up shop in Silicon Valley are hard pressed to recruit such top-notch talent there because of fierce competition from tech companies, he said.
“Everyone thinks that the best way to do things is to run off to Silicon Valley and hire the same people that Google is hiring and Facebook is hiring,” Feigenbaum said.
“There’s all these great people here,” he said of Tokyo. “This is an untapped resource.”