Innovation November 1, 2023
(Original issue date: October 25, 2023)

Going after both EGO and ECO!
The Development Project Leader Shares Thoughts Put Into SUSTAINA-C Concept

Going after both EGO and ECO! The Development Project Leader Shares Thoughts Put Into SUSTAINA-C Concept

The name of "Tokyo Motor Show” was changed to the "JAPAN MOBILITY SHOW” this year. With the theme of “Honda Dream Loop,” Honda is welcoming visitors to the booth designed to convey the dreams Honda wants to realize and Honda’s vision for the future.

One of the featured items on display is the SUSTAINA-C Concept, a concept model of an electric vehicle which will enable people to “transcend the constraints of limited resources.” The development project leader, Takeki Tanaka, shares the thoughts and passion put into this concept model and the future society he envisions.

Takeki Tanaka

Senior Chief Engineer,
Creation of Future Electrical Vehicles
Innovative Research Excellence
Honda R&D Co., Ltd.
Takeki Tanaka

Joined Honda in 1993. After he worked on the North American Accord (sixth generation), Insight (first generation), Fit (third generation) as body design leader, then as an acting development leader, Tanaka served as the development leader for the Fit (fourth generation).
In 2023, as the development leader for the next-generation electric vehicle research team, he led the development of the SUSTAINA-C Concept.

Striving for a sustainable, compact and everyday vehicle for more people

- What kind of car is the SUSTAINA-C?

Tanaka

More and more customers are opting for electric vehicles; however, to achieve full-fledged popularization, we want to develop electric vehicles that are easy for customers to obtain in all aspects, including price. That was the starting point of our development, and we incorporated a number of unique technologies that will help society address the environmental challenges.

Toward the realization of a circular/recycling-oriented society with zero environmental impact, we want to pursue the closed-loop recycling of resources (resource circulation), which will enable people to enjoy freedom of mobility without being constrained by the availability of resources. With this concept car we propose our vision for the future society where what we want to do or what’s fun for us will be compatible with our environmental efforts.

Tanaka

We named this model “SUSTAINA-C” with “SUSTAINA” for sustainability and “C” for compact. We want SUSTAINA-C to be a sustainable, compact and everyday vehicle for more people. That is the passion we put into this model.

- What environmental issues are you trying to address with this model and what kinds of original Honda technologies did you put into this model?

Tanaka

With this model, we are trying to facilitate resource recycling and reduce CO2 emissions. For the body panels of the SUSTAINA-C, we are using recycled acrylic resin recovered from end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) in the market in order to reduce automotive waste. Since acrylic does not lose its characteristics when recycled, it can be used repeatedly. The use of recycled acrylic will enable us to facilitate the recycling of resources.

Tanaka

Moreover, because of its high weather resistance and, thus, minimal sun damage and its smooth surface and great coloration, acrylic can be used for body panels without painting. As a matter of fact, the painting process is the most CO2-emitting process in automobile production, accounting for about 80% of the total CO2 emissions from an auto factory. By using acrylic body panels, we can eliminate the painting process, thereby reducing CO2 emissions significantly.

Electric vehicles are expected to be environmentally-responsible vehicles because they do not emit CO2 in use. However, unless CO2 emissions are also eliminated in the production process, they cannot truly be called environmentally-responsible vehicles. With this in mind, we decided to use recycled acrylic.

However, acrylic panel is more prone to breaking upon impact, and therefore, until now it could not be used for auto body panels. To address this issue, we decided to use a new acrylic which is more flexible and less prone to breakage, which Honda had been developing in collaboration with Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation. As a result, we were able to create an automobile nobody has ever seen before.

We also incorporated Honda's playful spirit. Until now, the conventional wisdom has been that beautifully painted cars are the best, and unpainted cars are inexpensive alternative. However, we developed this model with the premise that we wouldn’t paint it. So, we took on a challenge to create a design expression that could not be achieved through painting.

For example, in the marble-patterned design, we intentionally show flow marks of acrylic resin that occurs during the molding process of the panels, presenting unprecedented design patterns for auto body panels. Also, because acrylic resin is recyclable, it would be easy to replace them with panels with different colors. It may be an interesting experience to change the color of your car body according to the mood you are in.

Many smartphones and other devices these days are not painted and are considered rather cool that way. I hope this “no paint is cool” trend will become the norm for cars as well.

Tanaka

Furthermore, taking advantage of another feature of acrylic, transparency, we came up with the technique of molding the tailgate as a single allylic panel, just like a smartphone screen, and letting the taillights shine through from the backside of the panel. Utilizing mini-LED panels, the taillights not only function as regular taillights, but can be used to display various images and/or messages.

I ride a motorcycle, and there is a motorcycle community culture where riders raise their hands to communicate with other riders when they pass each other, even if they are complete strangers. I thought it would be fun if we could do that with cars. For example, people who are heading to the same event can share some data of participating artists on display, or we can use our car to display ads while parked. There are many ideas, and I would like to add new ways of using our cars.

SUSTAINA-C created in Honda’s Waigaya culture

- The SUSTAINA-C is full of unconventional ideas and elements of surprise. How was this vehicle created?

Tanaka

Usually, new model development begins with a clear goal, and then the team is put together with the members necessary to achieve that goal. However, the development of SUSTAINA-C started differently. The idea was born through discussions at our regular weekly meetings.

These weekly meetings are open to anybody, participants have diverse areas of expertise, and they are of diverse ages. The topics we discuss are also diverse, including not only things related to automobiles, but any topics of high interest to society, such as generative AI.

Everyone comes to these meeting with a spirit of wanting to do something new, so the atmosphere is very positive. These meetings truly embody Honda's Waigaya culture. In such an environment, what the participants bring to the meeting induces a “chemical reaction.” That is how we created this concept model, as an output of our meetings.

- As the leader who compiled various ideas generated at such meetings into a concept car, what did you keep in mind in terms of building this development team?

Tanaka

Stating the obvious, no one can build a car alone. As an engineer, I like to work diligently and quietly, but there is a limit to what one person can do, and it is necessary to share the work among team members. To me, an ideal team is the one where each member can work spontaneously based on our own initiative and thoughts, and not just follow instructions given by somebody else. I believe that such a team will lead to great achievements.

As for being a team leader, there are various opinions on the leader’s roles and management styles. But since I myself do not like to be constrained by too many rules or instructions, I think it is important to clearly indicate the direction the team should be taking, but not to give detailed work instructions.

When I joined Honda in 1993, then CEO Nobuhiko Kawamoto was an engineer with a strong passion for sports cars, who had been involved in F1 for a long time. Partly because of his background, I heard Mr. Kawamoto initially took a position against the development of the minivan. However, when he realized that it is necessary based on the market trends and other factors, he quickly switched his position with no hesitation and steered the company toward the development of Honda’s first minivan. Although I was just a young and inexperienced new associate at that time, I witnessed an awe-inspiring decision that the leader made, and I felt as if I had learned a little about how leaders should be.

Compared to that decision of Mr. Kawamoto, the leader roles and jobs I serve for the development of SUSTAINA-C were very different, because the direction we are taking was already clear and many ideas had already been gathered. The use of acrylic body panels was the first in the world, and we had no reference points anywhere, but I don't think we struggled so much, rather I feel that all of the members were excited and enjoying working on this concept model.

I want to create cars that contribute to a world where people can enjoy mobility more freely at their own will

- Please tell us why you chose this career path in automotive engineering.

Tanaka

I have always loved cars and all other vehicles since I was a little kid. I was attracted to the first-generation City when I was in junior high school, which made me want to work for Honda. My image of Honda cars was compact, user-friendly and nimble, and to me, Honda cars were cool in a unique way that set them apart from other brands.

The first-generation City introduced in 1981 The first-generation City introduced in 1981
Tanaka

There are brochures or booklets for some cars that are titled like “all about” that model, you know? I was a kind of kid who loves those “all about” books and reads from cover to cover. Among all those people featured in the development stories, I felt strong admiration for the development leaders. I remember that when I was asked what I wanted to do at Honda in the recruitment interview, I answered, “I want to be the development leader," and they laughed at me.

After my wish came true and I joined Honda, I have been involved in product development, mainly in the area of body design, as an engineer for more than 30 years now. I love motorcycles as well as cars, and on my days off I team up with my friends to participate in various activities including endurance races.

- What is the value that SUSTAINA-C can offer to our customers, as a car developed by the team led by the leader who fulfilled his childhood dreams?

Tanaka

What we strived to achieve with the SUSTAINA-C was to make EGO and ECO compatible. With the SUSTAINA-C, the customers can enjoy going wherever they want, as much as they want, driving a car in their favorite color, without worrying about the environmental impact.

If people continue to seek the freedom of mobility in the future, it will conflict with environmental conservation efforts. However, I believe that addressing environmental issues and being more environmentally-responsible, including reduction of CO2 emissions, are what Honda should do as a mobility manufacturer. It should be Honda promising to the customers that no matter where customers go in their Honda vehicles, it will not lead to environmental destruction.

I want our customers to be able to pick their favorite colors for their car and enjoy mobility more freely and happily. If such a car becomes a part of their daily lives, their life would be more colorful and enjoyable. Because this is what I want for our customers, to be honest, I don't mind if customers don't even know that SUSTAINA-C is made of environmentally-responsible materials.

That said, Honda is working on the area of “resource circulation” as a whole, with an eye toward mass production and commercialization in this area, based on the technology and concept we developed with this concept model. We believe that this will lead the value proposition of Honda we can promise to our customers.

- Beyond the development of SUSTAINA-C, what kind of future are you striving for?

Tanaka

Automobiles are a means to realize people's freedom of mobility. So, all people who desire to have freedom of mobility should be able to use automobiles. However, currently, automobiles can only support the mobility of a limited number of people. For example, people who are not old enough to get a driver’s license (18 in Japan) or those elderly people who made a decision to voluntarily surrender their driver’s license cannot drive a car to go places. Moreover, as to driving for people with special needs, although the industry has made progress in offering more and better technological support, I think it is still not enough.

My dream is to realize a world in which no one is excluded and everyone can enjoy mobility more freely at their own will, and I would like to create cars that contributes to such a future. To this end, I will remain committed to the research and realization of next-generation electric vehicles.

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