Further evidence of the coming fragmentation of personal transportation came today when Honda released details of the next iteration of its "Micro Commuter" prototype which we first saw at the Tokyo Motor Show last year.
The new version is close to production-ready (without the extreme aerodynamics of the initial prototype) and concentrates the battery and functionality of the micro EV below the floor, enabling the vehicle's body to be easily changed to accommodate different functionality.
It seemed so obvious 100 years ago, with an excess of petroleum, unreliable metallurgy and no concerns about air pollution, to over-engineer our automobiles so they'd have low stress, reliability and longevity, and be able to carry very large amounts of everything. There was only one casualty – efficiency. The folly of those ways is now equally obvious, and Honda's Micro Commuter Concept is at the extreme far end of the spectrum to that over-engineering approach.
Billed as a short distance EV commuter, the 100-inch long Honda Micro Commuter is a full six inches shorter than the smart fortwo's 's 106-inch length, and 20 percent narrower at 49 inches compared to the smart's 61.4 inches.
The secret of the latest vehicle's energy frugality is it's extremely light weight. Whereas a smart fortwo ED (Electric Drive) has a weight of 870 kg, the Honda comes in at considerably less than half that weight (it's less than 400 kg but we don't know the exact figure), and is able to achieve similar performance to the the smart ED with a motor producing just 15kW, compared to the smart's 30kW.
The Micro Commuter is built specifically for a new era though – it is designed to take one person and one passenger (or two children passengers) a maximum of 60 miles at a maximum of 50 mph. Those figures are realistically well within the range most people use in their commuting, but it will take some time for people to become accustomed to having just enough, instead of three or four times the power, weight and range required.
Maybe it is possible to build a fully electric vehicle that will still offer a range of several hundred miles and a speed potential of three times the speed limit, but not at this time with currently available technologies.
I'm disappointed that the high-efficiency aerodynamics have been sacrificed for the production model. They may have been dispensed with as a safety concern, with some of those sharp edges a safety concern for pedestrians, but whether or not you like the aerodynamic approach to efficiency, those shapes make for a more efficient automobile – and they reek of functionality.
As is often the case with vehicle design, it's all trade-off, and the Honda's small battery can recharge inside three hours whereas the smart fortwo ED's much larger battery takes eight hours to fully replenish.
Honda developed the Micro Commuter within a new framework of micro mobility categories currently being proposed by the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism as well as European L7 regulations. To be classified under the L7 category in Europe, an EV must weigh less than 400 kg and have an output of 15 kW or less – in meeting those targets, the Micro Commuter is suddenly a very realistic alternative to the traditional automobile in an environment which will certainly appreciate it.
Honda will begin real-world testing of the Micro Commuter in Japan next year to verify the potential of the vehicle in short-distance transportation roles for a variety of users – families, ferrying small children and senior citizens to their necessary activities, home delivery services, commuting and car sharing.
The Micro Commuter Concept was first seen at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show this time last year, but the concept has developed significantly since then, with the adoption of the Variable Design Platform.
This concept positions important functional components such as the battery, motor and control unit into a compact space under the floor so that the body and interior can easily be re-purposed for different uses.
One of the most intriguing features of the Micro Commuter is the use of a user-owned tablet device for the display, navigation, audio and back-up camera, and the ability to charge the tablet using solar cells mounted on the vehicle roof.
In the first iteration of the concept seen in Tokyo, the micro-car used Honda's own tablet/smartphone device, but now it appears there has been a change of heart.
I have been highly critical of previous attempts by car makers to designate a specific tablet as the display for their vehicle, mainly because tablets tend to go out of date much quicker than cars.
Some of my concerns disappear if the manufacturer provides a universal docking station and a commitment to provide ongoing support and development of quality software in Windows, Android and iOS for the car's owners. What cannot be easily solved with a tablet as your dashboard, is the likelihood that your car will become a smash-and-grab target, or else you'll need to carry your tablet with you at all times – okay for some, but not for everyone. The whole idea of using a tablet as the car dashboard still looks to me like car makers trying to be hip and relevant with integrated digital technology when in fact they are creating more problems than they are solving.
Finally, Honda's continuing research in all aspects of energy management should be noted here. Japanese auto companies appear far more attuned to the future problems faced by society than auto companies from other countries, and it's hence not surprising to see the Micro Commuter with onboard solar cells and development in conjunction with the Honda Smart Home System (HSHS).