It'd be an understatement to say Honda has taken a conservative approach to self-driving technology in recent years. The company has perhaps done less than any other major automaker in the autonomous-driving realm.
But with a few billion in spare change, it sure caught up quickly.
Honda made an equity investment of $750 million in General Motors subsidiary Cruise Automation this week, and agreed to contribute approximately $2 billion over 12 years to jointly develop an autonomous vehicle.
The company ostensibly could have built a top-flight self-driving program on its own for that collective price tag. But while others have poured money into their own expensive autonomous-development programs, Honda has chosen to sit back, pick a leader and pay to move toward the front of the pack. It's the strategic path less traveled among leading automakers, and time will tell whether it's the right decision. Meanwhile, company executives have kept their focus on what they do well: engineer and build cars.
And that's what they'll do in this latest tie-up. Together, the three companies will embark upon the design and building of a purpose-built automated vehicle. At once, it's an obvious next step and an intriguing one. GM has made the Chevy Bolt EV the early flagship of its autonomous efforts. But Wednesday's developments further clarified the feeling the Bolt is not a long-term solution.
The companies will build "a purpose-built vehicle that will be the first vehicle produced at scale, that is free from the constraints about vehicle design and having a driver at the wheel, and all the constraints associated with that," GM President Dan Ammann said. "This takes us to the true future of mobility."
Might that future include fuel cell vehicles? Honda and GM are collaborating on hydrogen fuel cell technology, with plans to manufacture fuel cell systems in Michigan starting in 2020. Like most alternative power solutions, fuel cells have struggled to gain a foothold, much less widespread adoption. But given that automated vehicles will deploy in specific geographic environments and be managed by fleet operators, the infrastructure needs for fuel cells would be much more manageable.
Neither side is delving into specifics on the vehicle. But it's clear the companies have built trust with each other in the past, made a blockbuster announcement in the present and may have more plans up their sleeve in the future.
"We are going forward by leveraging each other's strengths," said Honda COO Seiji Kuraishi. "We'd like to expand this business deal going forward."
— Pete Bigelow