Robert Bienenfeld, who has been pushing the alternative fuel agenda at Honda for years, outlined Honda’s 10-point “polyfuel” strategy at the CALSTART conference.
Polyfuels in this context does not refer to the fuel cell manufacturer of the same name. The term is a label for the pragmatic short- to medium-term—and perhaps even long-term—approach of basically using whatever technologies and alternative platforms are available to help stop the headlong rush to the precipice of increasing oil dependence and emissions-driven climate change and health issues.
A polyfuels strategy is inherently one of fuel and platform diversity—sort of like a coalition government. The different parties and factions have their own agendas, issues and principles; constantly struggle for the upper hand; but manage to work together on large, strategic issues.
Honda’s strategy is as follows:
Reduce emissions and increase power without hurting fuel efficiency. Honda points to the Accord hybrid as an example. The downside of this approach, which is clearly designed to meet the current buying criteria of the majority of consumers (size, power, comfort, safety), is that you don’t make progress quickly enough.
Aggressively apply current technologies that work— Honda’s VTEC for variable cylinder management as an example. This is essentially the approach the California Air Resources Board is demanding from automakers in adherence to the CO2 reduction standards.
Try various marketing concepts to see what works. Honda has packaged its hybrid technology in three different vehicles designed around different principles:
- The Insight for extreme efficiency
The Civic Hybrid for mass market appeal
The Accord Hybrid for performance, luxury and efficiency.
Be realistic in building business plans. Honda’s sales of Civic Hybrids have tracked closely to the price of fuel.
Lead with strategic concepts, such as the natural gas Civic. (Civic GX) Honda is indeed taking the lead in the US in making natural gas vehicles available and convenient for consumers...and it’s a test. (Point 3 above.)
Invest in advanced technologies—hydrogen fuel cell technology represented by the second generation Honda FCX running on Honda’s own fuel cell stack.
Evaluate new technology in the real world. Test it, market it.
Listen to and partner with leaders.
Innovate with infrastructure solutions. Honda is doing this more broadly than any other automaker of which I am aware in this area. Their innovation isn’t relegated to large-scale multi-million dollar lighthouse projects, hydrogen filling stations and so on. With the Phill home natural gas pump and the second generation Honda Energy Station for home hydrogen reforming and fueling, Honda is trying to bring these advanced capabilities to the consumer.
Invest in demand-side innovations. Honda has tried a variety of intelligent community vehicle approaches (Flexcar, Carlink) sharing low-emissions or alternative vehicles to reduce overall usage.
As presented, the Honda strategy makes sense, and it is clear they are executing on it—it also leaves out a number of different approaches, notably clean diesels, biofuels and battery electric vehicles. That’s OK—as long as someone provides those missing elements.