Honda counts on power of engines in hybrid world image

As an engineering student in the 1960s, Takeo Fukui picked the analysis of nitrogen dioxide emissions as his senior thesis with one goal in mind: joining Honda Motor to get a foothold in the world of motor racing.

He made the cut but, as luck would have it, Honda pulled out of racing that same year in 1969. Founder Soichiro Honda had decided the company should focus instead on improving its engines to clean emissions for an increasingly green-minded public.

Forty years later, Fukui leaves behind a similar mandate as he vacates his CEO post this week, having yanked Honda out of Formula One racing six months ago.

And while auto executives talk about the dawn of a new century of automobiles as gasoline-electric hybrid cars enter the mainstream, Fukui says engine technology will remain at the core of Honda’s efforts.

“Engines still have a long way to go,” he told Reuters. “You can’t improve the hybrid system without working on engines.”

If Fukui is right, Honda has a good shot at keeping its edge in the global auto industry, at least for the foreseeable future.

Having got its start in post-war Japan knocking together engines for bicycles, then motorcycles and eventually also lawnmowers, generators and cars, Honda is the world’s top engine maker by far, producing more than 20 million a year.

It was Honda’s CVCC engine that, back in 1974, crowned the Civic as the world’s first car to clear emissions standards under the U.S. Clean Air Act on engine performance alone, putting Honda on the map overnight and prompting juggernauts such as Toyota to come knocking on the door for help.

Experts agree competitive engines are a prerequisite for developing a good hybrid system.

“Today’s competitive hybrid car is ‘integral’, which requires a delicate balance of engine, electric motor, batteries, power splitter, and the rest of the vehicle.” said Takahiro Fujimoto, a manufacturing expert at the University of Tokyo.

“That’s why it’s not as simple as buying the hybrid system and mounting it on a car; refining the engine is extremely important.”

Staying ahead in the hybrid race will be vital for Honda, which has so far weathered the economic downturn better than rivals with an unbroken string of profits since its founding.