Much about Honda Motor Co.’s (s HMC) plans for an electric version of its compact Fit car remain either undecided or shrouded in secrecy. As Honda spokesperson Chris Martin emphasized at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week, where Honda debuted the Fit EV, the car is “purely concept” at this point. But one thing is set: Honda will work with Google (s GOOG), among other partners, to evolve that concept into a vehicle that’s ready for production.
Google will be adding the model to its so-called “Gfleet,” which Dave Dewitt, principal engineer for Honda R&D, described as a “car share program with 2,600 members.” Managed by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the program has made hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles available to Google employees at the company’s Mountain View, Calif. campus since 2007. In partnership with the search giant, said Dewitt, Honda will analyze large amounts of data and seek to quantify “what kind of real CO2 reductions” can be expected with an electric vehicle like the Fit.
More all-electric models may be integrated into Google’s fleet in the coming months. A spokesperson for Google told Bloomberg recently that Google plans to “transition and expand” its fleet of 30 hybrid and plug-in models next year, “with new electric vehicles that are coming into the marketplace.” Dewitt said that while the Fit EV is the first publicly announced all-electric model joining Google’s plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius and Ford Escape models, the deal is non-exclusive.
This partnership comes at a time when Google seems increasingly to be looking at vehicles as yet another electronic device for which it can build software. Back in May, General Motors (s GM) announced plans to link up with Google to use Google services like voice search, maps and navigation in an app designed to link the Chevy Volt with Android-based smartphones (check out our hands-on video demo here). And last month The New York Times reported that Google has been quietly building self-driving robotic car technology, based on the work of Google engineer and Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun, who co-invented Google’s Street View mapping service.
In addition to Google, Honda will also be working with Stanford University and the City of Torrance in Southern California for its planned Fit EV demo program. Stanford will focus on driver behavior and “usability,” while investigating ways to integrate electric vehicles into larger transportation systems, according to Dewitt. The goal of the Torrance program, Dewitt said, is to develop community programs and figure out what local governments can do to promote adoption of electric vehicles.
Honda’s representatives declined to comment on several points, including the scale of the demonstration program, production volumes targeted for 2012, and the anticipated timeline for delivering road-ready vehicles to the three demo partners. Although Honda President and CEO Takanobu Ito said that the demo program will begin this year, Dewitt said partners will not necessarily have vehicles in hand within that time frame.
Honda was more forthcoming with its intentions for some aspects of the five-seat Fit EV design. Martin said that the chassis will be “pretty much the same” and while the “seats may not fold as flat,” it’s important to Honda to preserve the cargo room built into the conventional gas-fueled Fit. That may not be an easy feat. General Motors, for example, has sacrificed a seat in its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt by running a T-shaped battery pack down the center tunnel of the vehicle (it seats four).
Honda plans to equip the Fit EV with three driving modes, including Econ, Normal and Sport. In Normal mode, the car will get an estimated 100 miles of electric range in the EPA’s LA4 city test cycle (meant to reflect stop-and-go urban driving patterns). If the EPA makes an expected adjustment to its testing scheme, however, that rating could come down to 70 miles per charge. Regardless, said Martin, the Econ mode will afford an estimated 17 percent more range compared to Normal mode.
And of course, in keeping with an increasingly common practice among plug-in car makers, Honda also revealed plans this week to link the Fit EV with smart phones, enabling users to check the battery state of charge, for example, or control air conditioning remotely through their mobile device.
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