Dreams, Fantasies, and Realities: Inside Honda’s Japanese R&D Lab

Luxury supercars, hydrogen fuel cells, and fully autonomous cars -- in 15 years
Acura NSX

Two Acura NSX supercars sit on the test track at Honda's research and development lab in Tochigi, Japan, which was opened to journalists for the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show. Eric Adams/Popular Science

For a few brief moments, Honda showed us the future of driving. It’s not what you think. It’s electric, yes, but not dependent on batteries alone. It’s certainly autonomous, but probably not quite as soon as other carmakers would have you believe. It’ll still be gasoline-powered, too, but with efficiencies that will rival today’s hybrids. It’ll be filled with ten-speeds.

The reality, though, is this: the truly best stuff? Not gonna happen. But we’ll get to that in a sec.

First, background. Automobile manufacturers aren’t known for their open-door policies. You can’t just waltz in and see what they’re up to, any more than you can at Apple, say, or Sony. The reasons are obvious: Concealment of trade secrets and new tech from the competition, and the simple fact that most of the stuff in development at any given moment likely won’t see the light of day. It may not pan out, it may evolve into something else, or it may just not be anything anybody really wants. The archives of high-tech companies the world over are filled with really stupid stuff they’d rather you just didn’t see.

So when Honda (slogan: “the Power of Dreams”) recently opened the doors of its sprawling research and development center in Tochigi, Japan—complete with a its own banked-oval test track—it was a rare opportunity to see what directions the company is headed, beyond what you can infer from recent history.

The event, held in conjunction with the Tokyo Motor Show, certainly wasn’t a complete baring of its techno/corporate-soul—we saw a carefully curated selection of next-gen tech, and under strictly controlled circumstances at the test track. There were no glimpses of drawing boards where ideas are floated and honed, and no look at hardware labs or testing facilities. Also: virtually no photography allowed. It was all completely clinical, but still quite telling.

Acura NSX supercar

Stop one: Realities

The Tour de Tech of Honda’s facilities necessarily had to include the most near-term and practical innovations, starting with Honda’s Clarity fuel cell vehicle (FCV). We took a hyper-brief spin in this hyper-advanced fuel cell car, and found it more powerful and stylish than its somewhat clunky immediate predecessor, the FCX. The big innovation here is the continued miniaturization and efficiency-enhancement of its fuel cell stack. That previously had to sit buried in the passenger compartment, but it now fits under the hood, freeing up more space amid the front and rear seats—capacity bumps up from four to five people.

Honda Clarity FCV fuel stack

The challenge here, as we’ve discussed frequently before, is the hydrogen fueling infrastructure, but the fact that Honda and Toyota (by virtue of its Mirai hydrogen car released over the summer) appear so dedicated to the role of hydrogen in our collective future is telling. Critics slag the tech constantly, but these are not stupid companies. They’re taking the long-view, seeing the fuel as an important contributor to our alt-fuel plan—not a single solution. The new Clarity FCV has a 434-mile range, the longest of an electric vehicle, and it fuels in mere minutes. That says a lot—and suggests that maybe these companies know something we don’t.

Honda’s new 10-speed transmission and its small turbocharged 1-liter, three-cylinder and 1.5-liter four-cylinder engines made appearances, as well. The small engines represent Honda’s first effort to downsize and turbocharge its engines, and the models we tested were surprisingly spry and responsive. Neither felt sluggish in the Civic sedan mules with tried them in—the three-cylinder in particular was eyebrow-raising in its non-three-cylinderishness.

We won’t be getting the 1.0-liter soon, but the 1.5-liter turbo will appear in the redesigned Civic coming to the U.S. in the spring, bringing improved fuel economy. They signal Honda’s renewed interest in ultra-efficient small engines for future lineups.

The new ten-speed transmission shown off in Japan is a world first for front-engine, front-wheel-drive cars. It boosts fuel economy by 6 percent and cuts gearshift times by 30 percent, making it more responsive. Additionally, the transmission can cut down engine RPMs at cruise speed by 26 percent, and it can skip three gear in one go, allowing it to drop from seventh to third and tenth to sixth when called on to accelerate with gusto. It can also skip single gears from any level. On the test track, it felt seamless and responsive, and not nearly as distracting as other high-gear transmissions tend to, with constant shifting.

You hardly notice it in action, but you do notice the difference in responsiveness and reduced engine ROM at cruising speeds. This could be the high-water mark for transmission gearing, as the laws of diminishing returns will kick in when confronted with increased complexity, but the new gearing still promises a significantly more fine-tuned future for internal-combustion engines.

Stop Two: Dreams

Our visit to the R&D center included a brief—really brief—drive of the new Acura NSX supercar, in Honda’s upscale, luxury brand extension. This was in advance of the official full media rollout of the $155,000 hybrid machine early next year, and we were granted two laps of the circuit at a speed-limited 120 mph.

Acura NSX on the test track

Still, it was good enough to show off the new car’s performance capabilities up to that point. The NSX is the first hybrid supercar in a relatively affordable price range—the others are Ferrari, Porsche, and McLaren hypercars in the $850,000+ range. But even among those technological giants, the Acura has an edge—its three-electric motor hybrid system (two motors up front paired to a twin-turbo V6 with an additional electric motor) is a uniquely fine-tuned all-wheel-drive setup that deploys subtle but noticeable torque-vectoring to help force the car more firmly and confidently through turns.

Though my drive didn’t include much in the way of actual turns, I got a good feel for the car’s dynamics in terms of acceleration and stability at higher speeds while banking through an oval’s turns. In short, the 573-hp system felt controllable and stable right at the outset, with minimal learning curve. It’s user-friendly, but it still eggs you on with the promise of even more power and control, far beyond the electronically limited variant we experience in Tochigi.

So if Honda has its way, the future will be filled with performance cars melding electricity and gasoline not just in the service of fuel economy, but to create a new levels of performance and controllability. In fact, we’re already seeing it: the RLX hybrid flagship from Acura uses a similar system, but in reverse—two motors in the rear, with an engine and third motor up front—to generate the same benefits. You notice it immediately, and quickly come to love it.

Acura NSX console and steering wheel

In Tochigi, we also got to drive Honda’s sporty S660, a compact, two-seat sports car that technically is considered a Kei-car—a tiny, fuel efficient machine intended for use in urban areas. If the NSX is a dream car, the S660 is one of a decidedly different stripe. The car has a tame .66-lite, three-cylinder, 63-hp engine that’s good for just 83 mph. In this country, that’s a joke, but the car was nevertheless pretty legit fun, and a uniquely satisfying driving experience if for no other reason than it was absolutely unapologetic about its capabilities. Will it scream down desert highways? No, but it handles beautifully and is 1,800-pounds of open-air enjoyment.

There’s no chance this car will come to the United States, but it does make a compelling statement: Fun doesn’t have to set your hair on fire. Maybe we could use some of that over here, after all.

We next sampled Honda’s burgeoning autonomy game, via its Traffic Jam Assist. This new system helps take the edge off of monotonous driving via an adaptive cruise control system that detects lane markers and vehicle movement ahead of your own car, allowing it to take complete control of speed and steering all the way down to a full stop/restart. It keeps the car centered better than similar systems from other carmakers, and it works quite smoothly in the new Honda Accord Hybrid that we tried it in.

Honda S660

Honda’s vision is to use autonomous tech primarily to simply ease fatigue and driver stress, and the company is adamant that more advanced systems—that is, fully autonomous cars that will drive through all conditions—are still at least 15 years away, though some carmakers argue they’re as close as 5 years away.

Stop three: Fantasies

Our day closed out with a drive of Honda’s extreme-prototype four-motor electric CR-Z. Using the base chassis and body of the sporty two-seat hybrid coupe, Honda flicked out the engine and instead inserted four electric motors, one at each wheel. Driving this car around a compact autocross proved to be the most entertaining and memorable experience of the day, in part because the power was so instantaneously available and in part because the system takes cornering capability to the next level. The drivetrain is based on Honda’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive and Precision All-Wheel Steer that was developed in a much more aggressive form for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb earlier this year.

Honda CR-Z 4-motor

The CR-Z we drove had about half the power of that racecar, but it was still insanely exciting, with hyper-precise torque-vector-controlled steering—the system slows and speeds up different wheels to help aim the car—and gobs of torque for crazy acceleration. This has both performance benefits and safety—it’s more controllable, and thus more likely to keep drivers out of trouble.

Sadly, this setup is purely a developmental experiment, so it has no direct path to production. Therefore, it earns a spot in our recap as pure fantasy. But it’s a fantasy we’re glad to entertain—and one that might crop up in our future in one form or another, for either pure fun or pure safety and practicality. This thing alone is a vision we can totally get behind.

Honda R&D test track
Inside Honda's Japan Research and Development Lab
Honda R&D test track
Acura NSX supercar
Acura NSX parked
Acura NSX on the test track
Acura NSX console and steering wheel
Honda S660
Honda Power Exporter 9000
Honda CR-Z 4-motor