Honda is pulling away from a design practice that’s (literally) shaped auto making since the ’30s.
The $43 billion company still depends on life-size clay models to evaluate its designs, a tried and true method pioneered by GM designer Harley Earl. But Honda is gradually relying less on the practice, ever since the Coronavirus tore across the globe and resulting lockdowns divided its teams in Los Angeles, Ohio and Japan. The way Honda tells it, those early 2020 travel rules “threatened” its designers’ ability to work with engineers on the ’24 Prologue, creating a window for a deeper dive into virtual reality.
By July 2020, Honda had opened two studios dedicated to VR — one in Torrance, California and another in Tokyo — so its teams could provide feedback on iterations of interiors and exteriors, sans air travel. Around two and a half years later, the automaker said designs that it evaluated via VR are now rolling off assembly lines.
“You can mature a design in a much shorter time frame” in VR, the company said last week when it invited press into its SoCal site. Roughly half the size of an NBA court, the studio comfortably fit several reporters and more than a dozen Honda staffers, many in branded button-ups.
Around the space I saw dozens of Varjo headsets, monitors mounted on box trusses and three demo stations for peering into or “sitting” in virtual cars, like the ’23 Pilot and ’24 Prologue EV. One station was entirely virtual, and two others featured real-life steering wheels and gas pedals and doors, in a buck setup that looked to me like this Hyundai press image from 2019. Plenty of other automakers, including Ford and Bugatti, have also turned to VR to visualize their work.
Honda’s gear was fun to try out, and thankfully it didn’t leave me dizzy enough to delay my trek home. Rather than focus on my proclivity for motion sickness, I wanted to understand whether VR-aided design had any impact on the final results. How did it influence the Pilot? Can car-buyers expect anything new, now that some of Honda’s teams spend more time in virtual rooms?
Yet as far as I can tell, Honda hasn’t offered a precise explanation of what, if anything, is different about cars refined in VR. Instead, the automaker talked up efficiency. In a statement, it said “one of the many tests performed included color evaluation in a VR environment, which is valuable for the color, materials, and finishes team to visualize all trims holistically, enabling instant feedback between the design studios in LA and Japan.” Uh, nice!
During Honda’s demos, staffers explained how VR saved them time on model development, letting them rapidly change designs so they could be reviewed later that same day. At least for now, it seems the impact of VR on the design of Honda cars will be invisible to shoppers. Virtual or not, Hondas will be Hondas.
Honda also did not share exactly how many clay models it develops before mass producing a car or SUV. During the event, one staffer told TechCrunch that the firm has “a few touch points” where it checks designs via physical models, “and we’re removing them one by one,” he explained.
The same staffer added that over time the firm is “building up the trust, and decision-makers being able to say, ‘yes, it’s good’” without checking a physical model. I wish I could remember who said this, but when you’ve had a headset strapped to your face (pictured above), it’s hard to keep track of who’s saying what.
As I struggled to balance the virtual and physical worlds, Honda made its case that VR was actually making things speedier and easier. Yet, the automaker wouldn’t say if it would pass the time saved by its designers on to shoppers in the form of lower prices. Honda was also quick to emphasize that it would not “pursue a purely digital approach,” as Bugatti said it has done. Honda’s VR head Mathieu Geslin credited physical models for ensuring it didn’t “lose emotion and the human touch” of its cars.
Honda designers apparently prefer a hybrid approach. After I stripped off a headset and returned to the room, I asked if anyone at the company struggled to adapt to VR. A staffer told me some designers, especially in interiors, “love touching things. They like feeling things, so it’s a bit of a departure for them,” they explained, adding that virtual evaluations are “hard to accept sometimes.”
It’s possible that Honda’s shift toward VR is also making its design team more sustainable, by eliminating some executive air travel as well as iterations of models that would ultimately wind up in a landfill. Still, VR is unlikely to seriously move the needle, emissions-wise, given the enormity of mass production and the staying power of combustion engines. Fully electrifying cars would go way further in reducing emissions, but Honda’s deadline for doing so is still years away.