TOKYO — Honda has long thrived on a reputation for stubborn industry independence, cutting-edge engineering and — perhaps most of all — near-bulletproof engines deployed in everything from airplanes and race cars to lawnmowers.
But today’s satisfied driver of a Honda Civic or Acura NSX may hardly recognize the Japanese automaker in 20 years under a radical revolution being led by recently installed CEO Toshihiro Mibe.
If his transformation succeeds, Honda will take a page from Elon Musk’s SpaceX and start making rockets. Honda will drop its long-standing aversion to tie-ups with other companies and possibly combine with new partners, even tech companies outside the automotive world.
Honda will also ditch its famed combustion engines for full-electric or hydrogen fuel cell systems. And in this divergent future, Honda — following an industry trend — may even sell fewer vehicles than today, as the business model shifts to shared mobility, from individually owned cars.
In an interview with Automotive News, Mibe conceded his vision plots a challenging path. But change, the new boss said, was the only way to survive in this tough new era.
“Honda will not be an automotive company anymore,” Mibe bluntly summed it up.
Mibe, 60, is described by those who know him as a free-thinking, open-minded leader with a sense of his own place at a turning point in the company’s history. He is not afraid to break the mold.
Mibe is convinced that Honda, as one of the world’s top producers of combustion engines and — as a result — of carbon emissions, has a social responsibility to refocus on carbon-neutral enterprises.
“That is the main aim,” Mibe said at Honda Innovation Lab Tokyo, which is housed in a downtown high-rise and works on connected, digital and artificial intelligence projects.
“I have a concrete image of beyond 2030 — the social structure will be changed, not only for automobiles but also for other areas,” he said. “The business model itself has to change.”
With his vision stretching some two decades into the future, Mibe won’t be around to see it to fruition. But outsiders say his ambitious revamp has reignited a spark of urgency and innovation at a company that still prides itself on engineering feats such as the CVCC engine.
“Honda’s mojo is coming back,” said Takaki Nakanishi, head auto analyst at Nakanishi Research Institute in Tokyo. “Whether Mibe can do it or not is one matter. But he has made the commitment to try. And that is what is different from other Japanese auto leaders.”
Sustaining Honda’s long-term viability is a top priority for Mibe.
The new boss took the wheel on April 1, and he is already easing away from the headstrong corporate independence that a parade of predecessors in the CEO office long deemed sacrosanct.
Honda is the only Japanese auto company still clinging to independence, as compatriot automakers coalesce into two blocs centered on Toyota and Nissan. But as a midsize player on the global stage, Honda needs the help of friends, Mibe concedes.
For the time being, that means cooperating with General Motors on a range of projects, from hydrogen fuel cell technology to electric vehicles. But whereas previous Honda heads adamantly ruled out corporate cross-shareholdings with GM or anyone else, Mibe said he is open to any partnership that brings value and a competitive edge — corporate ego be damned.
“I’m not simply hung up on maintaining independence,” he said. “It is not ‘independence first.’ ”
Mibe cited partnerships with information technology companies and even entertainment companies as ideas worth exploring as Honda seeks new businesses.
“If holding shares becomes necessary as part of that, then we would need to consider that, too,” Mibe said. “If we look at Honda now, can we do everything by ourselves? Unfortunately, the answer is no. So I will be considering the possibilities of an alliance or alliances.
“I must say I am already thinking about that,” he said. Honda is not in talks with Apple, Mibe said.