Honda Reaches EV Plus Milestone
By EV World
2 May 1999 -- "There's a lot to learn about electric vehicles," stated Robert Bienenfeld, American Honda Motor's alternative fuel vehicles marketing manager. "From Honda's point of view, we're just in the middle of the EV program."
Of course, that's not the way Honda's recent announcement that it was ceasing production of the Honda EV Plus electric car at its plant in Japan was interpreted by the press, California air quality officials or EV enthusiasts. The LA Times depicted the announcement as tantamount to Honda throwing in the towel and calling it quits on battery-powered electric cars. State regulators began talking about Honda's betrayal of its agreement with the state and suggested it was going to investigate the company, while EV enthusiasts speculated this was yet another indication that none of the big car makers are really serious about building electric cars; they're only concerned about meeting the letter of the law and making as many public relations points with consumers as possible.
EV World asked Bienenfeld to clarify just exactly what Honda's EV Plus decision really meant.
"First of all," he said, "Honda's announcement is about a milestone and not a decision. Our milestone was that we had leased the last of our electric vehicles. Our plan from the beginning was to build about 300 cars and put them in the market over a two to three year period. We were just saying that phase one, putting those cars into the market, had been accomplished and we were now moving on to phase two."
"Phase two," he continued, "is focusing on customer satisfaction. We know how customers feel about the cars, based on our survey after the first four to five months of ownership; and generally the cars have received glowing reports."
"The next question is how is it to live with this car over a three year period when there are issues to address such as battery detrioration and lifestyle changes that may impact the utility of the car. Things like people moving, getting a new job and changing their commute patterns and so forth. We think these are all important issues that need to be looked at over the next few years and we need to focus on a happy consumer experience over that period of time."
Honda EVs and California's ZEV Mandate
Bienenfeld explained that when California's Air Resource Board (CARB) realized in 1996 that the pace of EV battery development was not going to meet CARB's 1998 zero emission vehicle mandate, it agreed to temporarily waive its EV sales requirement. Instead of requiring 2% of all new car sales in California be "zero emission vehicles" or ZEVs -- which only battery-powered electric cars currently meet -- the state agreed to let each car maker put a voluntary number of EVs with advanced batteries on the road until the state's 10% mandate takes effect in 2003. According to Binenfeld, the state's objective is to foster the development of advanced battery technology with the 2003 deadline in mind.
Bienenfeld pointed out that Honda was the first car company to offer to consumers an EV with advanced battery technology in the form of nickel metal hydride batteries which give the car a range of 75-100 miles on a charge.
"Our responsibility is to put about 300 cars on the road for a period of about three years, and we're really in the middle of that and we see that this program is going very well, we're pleased with the results. We're learning a lot about the technology, about customer acceptance and about infrastructure, and those were our three goals for the program."
He emphasized that the decision to shut down the EV Plus production line in Japan was not a recent decision, but one which had been made at the outset. "This (closing of the production line) was scheduled, this was planned and it was not a decision that we made recently. This was planned from the beginning that we would be building about 300 cars."
"The EV Plus is an important part of our research to get to 2003" (when California's and several other states' 10% ZEV sales mandates take effect). "The question is, how do we all get there? Can we get there?" he asked.
Because of its experience with advanced batteries in the consumer marketplace, Bienenfeld feels Honda has the "best shot at understanding consumer acceptance and battery technology issues. This will position us for knowing where we should go in 2003." While he wouldn't rule out the possibility of Honda introducing a successor to the EV Plus in 2003, he said, "I think all that remains to be seen and we're in the middle of this evaluation program."
Paying Its EV Tuition
When asked how much the EV Plus program was costing Honda, Bienenfeld declined to answer stating that "we get asked that question a lot."
"This program is a lot like tuition. We're going to school here and we're learning about the technology, the market. We've built a great car. It meets every federal motor vehicle safety standard. It's passed all of Honda's standards. But there are real important questions that need to be learned about this technology, not the least of which is consumer acceptance. We're still in the middle of that reach. This is not about profits and losses.
Bienenfeld stated that Honda's decision was not in any way linked to the ongoing economic troubles in Japan where consumer car sales have slipped to their lowest level in years for all manufacturers.
Putting To Rest The Waiting List Myth
The rumor has circulated on the Internet that Honda had a waiting list of customers lined up to lease the car and that by shutting down the assembly line, it was abandoning those customers. Bienenfeld stated categorically that at no time during the two years the car has been on sale, has there ever been a waiting list. Every vehicle sold was sold from inventory.
"From the first month we have been leasing cars from inventory," he stated. "We have had to advertise fairly heavily to get the customers that we did. So, our efforts at marketing the car were not symbolic in the least. They were very aggressive and we advertised in many newspapers throughout the state on a regular basis, three-quarter page ads. We advertised in many magazines in the state. California editions like Wired magazine, Fortune magazine, Audubon and many others. So, we did not have a waiting list with consumers."
Bienenfeld reported that in the last few months, Honda had been selling 10 to 15 EV Pluses a month. He admitted some people are still coming in looking to lease the car as a result of the company's advertisements. He also stated that during the time the car was available to lease, Honda had only turned away a couple of potential customers either because of the person's financial position or because they didn't live within EV driving range of one of eight Honda dealers in the state who handled the car. Those eigh dealers, he pointed out, cover some 85% of the population of the state of California.
What Happens To EV Plus Technology?
While Honda is very proud of its accomplishments with the EV Plus, Bienenfeld said that at no time had the company contemplated the notion of putting the car into full scale production until it had properly assessed both the technology and consumer acceptance issues.
He reminded EV World that elements of EV Plus technology are finding their way into other Honda products, in particular the new Honda VV hybrid-electric car due out at the end of this year. He stated that in many ways the VV is second-generation EV Plus technology. "It includes battery management and motor control technology developed from the EV Plus. In fact, the EV Plus helped us be first to market in the US with a hybrid."
Responding To Its Critics
"In many way, I don't understand the comments," Bienenfeld replied when asked about the criticisms leveled at Honda's EV Plus decision. "I do understand that people are disappointed, but we said from the beginning that we would come up with a program that made sense to us, that helped us evaluate vehicles for the future. We didn't think the technology was ready for mass production and we didn't know enough about consumer acceptance factors. And in fact it has been very challenging to market the car. It's a great car, but it does have its limitations. Seventy miles range and 6 to 8 hours recharge time."
"We've kept the regulators and the people in the EV industry up-to-date on our plans throughout our program. We've always said our plan was to begin our EV program with this goal in mind. I think we're one of the few, if not the only auto maker that has had a clear plan from the beginning, has kept to it, has executed it consistently in a timely fashion. I think we should be applauded," he said.
As for the cars currently under lease, Bienenfeld said he hope that their owners will continue to get many more miles of enjoyment out of them. Honda will continue to support the vehicles it has leased, though he didn't address what actually becomes of the vehicles once their 36 month leases begin to run out starting in 2000.
He also confirmed that Honda intends to continue to work with Ford Motor Company in the promotion and maintenance of the current conductive public charging infrastructure of which there are some 50 units in place in Southern California.
Looking Beyond the EV Plus
"Ever is a very long time," Bienenfeld responded when asked if there would ever be a market for a battery-powered-only EV. "I think electric technology will be very important in the future. I can say that in the environment today with very inexpensive gasoline and customers who demand a high level of convenience, it's been a tough sell."
Looking beyond the EV Plus program, Bienenfeld stated that as with all the other car makers, Honda is also working on the development of a practical, affordable fuel cell drive.
"Honda has a very aggressive fuel cell program," he stated, "but I can tell you one observation is that Honda tends to focus on when we talk to the press and focus on our products, we talk about real world products that customers can buy, more than products that are on drawing boards and won't be seen for years." He pointed out that Honda is currently the only manufacturer with an ultra-low emission gasoline vehicle on the market, as well as one of the few with a natural gas vehicle for sale to the consumer. It is currently shipping low-emission vehicles all over the US and will be the first with a hybrid-electric vehicle for sale in North America.
"These are forward-thinking, industry-leading products," he said. "And when you don't have those products, it's good to talk about what you're going to do."
Bienenfeld confirmed that the VV hybrid-electric will, indeed, be sold in the United States starting late this year and not just in Canada, as some have speculated, and it will be selling for under $20,000.
Finally, while he wouldn't rule out restarting the EV Plus production line, he said that Honda has to first evaluate the results of the program, which itself is a five-year long program that is just now reaching its mid-term point. "It's too early to tell," he concluded.
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