Honda moves beyond the car

While the rest of the auto industry struggles, Honda engineers explore their inner child with robots, walking assist devices and more.

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By Alex Taylor III, senior editor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- More like an engineering fraternity than an auto company, Honda Motor likes to explore technological challenges. Most have practical applications, like solar-powered refueling stations to convert natural gas into hydrogen for fuel-cell cars. Others seem whimsical, almost frivolous, as if Honda was pursuing the project just for the fun of it.

Despite the auto industry's Armageddon, those projects are continuing. Honda hasn't escaped the car sales depression, and has been trimming production and cutting employee salaries. But Honda engineers continue to pursue quirky ideas far removed from axles and transmissions.

That individualistic bent has produced projects as diverse as Asimo, the humanoid robot, and the Hondajet, a six-passenger jet plane (see "Inside Honda's brain"). Some pay off, others don't. The Hondajet goes on sale next year, while Asimo, the running, talking robot, remains a science experiment after 25 years of development.

The latest projects to emerge from Honda's dream factory will make their public debut later this month at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit. They come under the heading of "walking assist devices."

These aren't canes and crutches, but highly sophisticated motorized appliances made with lightweight materials and operated by computers and controllers.

The simplest of the two, the Stride Management Assist, is a wearable device designed for people with weakened leg muscles. Hip angle sensors calculate the amount and timing of assistance, and motors provide the power through a pair of thigh braces. The idea is to make walking easier and encourage older people, of whom Japan has a growing number, to get out more.

The more elaborate Bodyweight Support Assist can prop up 20 pounds while walking, crouching, or climbing and descending stairs. The user straddles the seat and inserts his feet into a pair of shoes attached to the device. The effect is to make you feel like you weigh less while you move around. (Watch a video of the Bodyweight Support Assist here.)

The Stride Management Assist is designed for individual use, mostly for the elderly, but it is possible to envision hundreds of Honda assembly line workers performing their tasks more quickly and with less fatigue wearing the Bodyweight Support Assist. Perhaps the Obama Administration's auto task force should free up some money so General Motors and Chrysler can outfit their factories with them.

I tried out both devices. I'm a fairly vigorous walker and couldn't get much benefit from the Stride Management device. But I could feel a real lift from the Bodyweight Support apparatus that made walking and crouching much easier.

As usual, Honda gave no hints about cost, timing, or commercial applications -- if any. Marketing the devices would likely require a new organization, since mobility assistance doesn't fit logically into cars, motorcycles or airplanes. They would also require new kinds of thinking; would Medicare pay for the Stride Management assist, for example. With payoff likely far down the road, Honda shareholders aren't likely to applaud their development.

Still, the two devices demonstrate original thinking, technological capability and willingness to experiment -- even at a time of great economic stress. Honda likes to style itself as not just an automaker but a mobility company. These kinds of projects put substance behind that claim.

This is another example of how the best Japanese companies approach the world. American corporations are focused on the next quarter; companies like Honda are thinking about the next generation. Our children may find that everything that can be construed as a mobility device -- from parachutes to escalators -- carries those familiar corporate red letters against a white background.  To top of page

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