TOKYO—Honda CEO Takahiro Hachigo is tapping the brakes on high expectations for high technology, joining a small but growing chorus of auto executives in sounding a reality check on aggressive visions for the rapid rollout of electric cars and autonomous driving vehicles.
"The hurdles to battery electric vehicles and complete autonomous driving are still quite high," Hachigo said in an interview last month at Honda Motor Co.'s global headquarters.
When it comes to electrification, Hachigo said, Honda will focus on gasoline-electric hybrids, not full EVs, through 2030. And with self-driving cars, Honda will prioritize incremental advances that offer real-world safety at affordable prices, rather than fancy functions and costly lidar systems.
To hear Hachigo tell it, Honda isn't trailing rivals, it's just more realistic.
"I don't know whether other manufacturers are becoming too optimistic or not, but apparently the approach in going about these regulations differs from one company to another," he said.
Indeed, Hachigo said Honda already has many of the technologies ready to go, including its own hands-off autonomous system for highways. But Honda remains cautious about deployment of automated driving as well as electric cars.
"EVs will not be mainstream," the Honda CEO said, adding that more advanced autonomous driving, such as Level 3, will require more expensive advanced driver-assistance systems.
"So, we will be cautious in trying to identify what vehicle model will be optimal."
Hachigo's comments come as other players temper expectations in an industry grappling with regulatory and technological developments in electrification, autonomous driving and connectivity.
For instance, General Motors' self-driving unit Cruise, in which Honda has a $2.75 billion minority stake, said in July it was backing off plans to deploy autonomous taxis by the end of this year.
In October, Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak said he had "given up" on ever seeing the realization of Level 5 autonomous driving in his lifetime. Apple was rumored to be working on a self-driving car project, but Wozniak said it's harder to achieve than once thought.
At last month's Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota Executive Vice President Shigeki Tomoyama said his company, among those with a conservative approach, isn't adjusting its plans for rolling out the new technologies. But that is because Japan's biggest auto maker—even with a $10 billion research and development budget—always saw the path to commercialization as long and challenging, he said.
"There are many manufacturers and ventures reviewing their timelines because they think it will take a little more time," Tomoyama said. "But from the start, we assumed it would take time."
Indeed, despite consuming billions of dollars in investment and luring new rivals from Silicon Valley and China, the nascent technologies offer little potential for profitability anytime soon.
Honda is particularly circumspect about the looming shift.
The company that brought the first hybrid car to the U.S. has only meager EV ambitions, even as competitors rush plans for full EV lineups and sales goals for hundreds of thousands of cars.
Honda is taking reservations for its new ultracompact E battery-powered city car in Europe, and deliveries begin next summer, but there are no plans to bring it stateside. For now, Honda's EVs are being positioned as little more than compliance cars.
"I do not believe there will be a dramatic increase in demand for battery vehicles, and I believe this situation is true globally," Hachigo said. "There are issues with infrastructure and hardware.