Drivemode, headed by Yokichi Koga, has developed an Android app that transforms a smartphone into an in-car central computing device that allows for voice-to-text messaging, music playing and navigation. The app, also called Drivemode, already has 1 million users, the company says.
Honda is working to develop a prototype in-vehicle system that enables the driver to easily control the Drivemode app with a touch of a button embedded in the steering wheel, said Nick Sugimoto, CEO of Honda R&D Innovation. Sugimoto's California-based unit oversees the Xcelerator project and acts as a conduit between the company and startups in Silicon Valley and around the globe.
Honda is looking for ways to deploy the system in emerging markets where car navigation hasn't gained much acceptance.
"Through collaboration with world-class innovators, we aim to provide opportunities for generating innovative technology and businesses across all of Honda's divisions," Sugimoto said.
Other startups Honda is cultivating include: Leia Inc., another Silicon Valley venture firm that develops glasses-free 3-D display technology; and VocalZoom, an Israeli-based startup that creates optical sensors for human-to-machine communication.
Japan's No. 3 carmaker declined to say how much it spends on such Xcelerator projects.
Open innovation are the buzzwords of the day in Japan, as the country's automakers race to partner with startups in the quest for fresh know-how.
These partnerships also inspire new thinking, Honda's executives say.
"Open innovation deeply has to do with corporate culture and DNA," Sugimoto said.
By partnering with tech innovators, Honda's engineers can be inspired to rediscover their company's entrepreneurial DNA, he said.
The willingness to take chances, he noted, was embodied in Honda founder Soichiro Honda's original tenets: Success is 99 percent failure.
"You can find Honda's original spirit in Silicon Valley," Sugimoto said.
"By coming to see rapid changes in Silicon Valley, Honda will recall the company's culture of taking on new challenges as a venture company," Sugimoto said. "It is about how Honda can transform itself. That's the ultimate goal of open innovation."