TOKYO - Honda will not decide before 1999 whether to add a second plant in Europe.
In an interview with Automotive News Europe, President Nobuhiko Kawamoto also said that Honda will sell an ultra-low-emission version of next year's new European Accord.
Kawamoto was interviewed by Luca Ciferri during the recent Tokyo auto show.
ACEA, the European manufacturers' association, is discussing whether to ask Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry for an extension of voluntary quotas on Japanese imports after they expire at the end of 1999. What is your opinion?
Honda has always been under its assigned quota, so this is not the major issue for us. I'm in favor of free trade. If problems occur we are open to discussing them.
How soon will Honda decide whether to build a second plant in Europe?
Not before 1999. We do not want to increase our fixed costs and add capacity that we are not able to fully use. We are just completing an increase in capacity at Swindon, UK, which required an investment of £60 million ($96 million). By the end of 1997 we will have capacity for 150,000 units a year, compared with the original 100,000. First, Honda Europe has to show us that it is able to sell all those 150,000, then we can think about adding another plant.
The European Union will probably extend into eastern Europe. If Honda decides to build its second plant, isn't the UK too far west?
Yes, but we will never build a car plant in a country where we are not already producing something, because it is too risky. Let me be clear on this topic in order to stop any possible speculation.
First, Honda has not decided yet to build a second plant in Europe.
Second, if it happens, it won't be in the former Eastern Bloc, but in a country where we are already operating, so not only the UK, but also possibly in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.
The UK will not enter Europe's single currency system from the beginning in 1999 and probably won't join until well after 2000. Is that a problem for Honda?
First, I have to say that I am not able to see the Euro as a European single currency without the pound in it.
Second, we are not benefiting from the recent rise in the value of the pound, but we are instead working to increase our efficiency in order to balance the strengthening of the currency.
At the Tokyo show Honda unveiled a number of low-emission vehicles, some already on sale in Japan and California. When will we see low-emission Hondas in Europe?
We are producing an electric car, but it is more of a technological statement than a saleable product, because the price is still too high. We are offering low-emission versions of the Civic in Japan and a ULEV Accord in California.
We will also offer a low-emission version of the new European Accord when it goes on sale in September 1998.
We honestly don't know the real market potential of these green models, nor do we expect a substantial sales increase, but I am convinced that our social responsibility as a car manufacturer is to build them.
Do you think the Kyoto summit on global warming will decide anything specific for the automotive industry?
I do not have great expectations. I think it will be mainly international politics between nations and nothing specific for the car business. I am convinced that high targets in terms of pollution reduction have to be set and we carmakers have to reach them. Think of Japan. Here only 20 percent of C02 emissions are from cars.
Is gasoline direct-injection the best way to achieve greener cars?
I am not totally sure. It is a promising technology, but I am a pessimist on future emission targets. In addition, its use in true lean-burn conditions is already extremely limited. Anyway, we are working on gasoline direct-injection and in about 18 months we will launch our own system, developed by our Tochigi research and development center.
Honda has unveiled at the Tokyo show some prototypes of products outside its current business: the P2 and P3 humanoid robots, the MH02 six-passenger jet plane and two turbofan engines for small aircraft. What do they mean for your strategy?
Humanoid robots have always been my dream as an engineer. Will we ever produce these humanoids? I don't know yet, but one day I will be happy to see -in our plants - the dirty and more tiring work done by our humanoid robots, leaving to the human beings only more elevated jobs. How long will it take? Probably two generations. On the jet plane and turbofan engine, let me say this - Honda is a provider of mobility. Airplanes are just another form of mobility.