In a last-ditch marriage of convenience, Honda partners with Sony to develop EVs

March 4, 2022, 7:19 PM UTC

Lagging well behind rivals in the race to build electric cars, Honda may have now found a life preserver in Sony.

On Friday, the two Japanese giants announced an alliance that would finally offer Honda the chance to launch a competitive electric car in 2025 using the complementary expertise of Sony in consumer entertainment.   

Sony, meanwhile, gets a competent automotive partner to help it launch an EV of its own and get a head start on Apple, which is rumored to be developing its own electric car. Ever since Apple’s iPod digital music player crushed Sony’s Discman CD player, Sony has largely lived off selling gaming consoles, led by its popular PlayStation.

In January, Sony announced plans to establish a new company in the spring called Sony Mobility to explore a commercial launch of its Vision-S concept electric cars.

“Although Sony and Honda are companies that share many historical and cultural similarities, our areas of technological expertise are very different,” Honda Motor CEO Toshihiro Mibe said in a statement on Friday. 

How exactly the partnership will work is uncertain. The two only signed a letter of intent and don’t even have a name for the joint venture—right now they’re going with “New Company.” 

It’s also unclear whether the EVs they plan to build would be part of a ride-sharing service or for actual sale to retail customers. Finally it remains to be seen how the planned cars will be branded, although Mibe suggested it would be distinct from Honda’s eponymous brand.

But experts believe the duo need this marriage of convenience to work for their EV aspirations to stand a chance.

“Both are hoping this deal will allow them to rise up from the ashes like phoenixes,” said Matthias Schmidt, an independent auto analyst and publisher of a monthly report about Europe’s fast-growing EV market.

For years Honda has mistakenly preached the benefits of fuel-cell cars, which are powered by chemically converting compressed hydrogen gas into electricity, with water vapor as the only emission.

For more than 20 years, automotive engineers worldwide, and in Japan in particular, have tried to bring such cars to scale, only to fail time and again. Not only has the fueling infrastructure proved even spottier than EV chargers, the maturity of fuel-cell technology has badly lagged advances made in EV batteries. 

With companies like Tesla, Volkswagen, GM, and now Ford throwing their collective weight behind EVs, other Japanese incumbents appear to have given up hopes fuel cells will ever find a market outside of replacing heavy-diesel long-haul trucks

Late to the party

Toyota, for example, is partnering with domestic rivals like Subaru, Mazda, and Suzuki to jointly develop a dedicated EV chassis—an arrangement that lets them split the cost. Meanwhile, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda personally unveiled plans in December to bring 30 EV models to market by 2030.

“Honda’s been the slowest of all when it comes to supporting EVs, in part because they never saw the need to invest in what is still for many in the industry an unprofitable segment,” Schmidt told Fortune. 

“It was only after Biden became president and began pushing sustainable green energy policies that legacy carmakers heavily exposed to the U.S. market really began to embrace EVs,” he continued.  

Up until now, Honda had at best an incoherent EV road map, cobbling together battery-powered models never intended to be sold in large volumes as a stopgap solution while also selling fuel-cell models like its lease-only Clarity. 

The critically well-received Honda E, for example, is a high-tech but overpriced subcompact exported to Europe in negligible numbers. A deal to license the same Ultium EV chassis GM will use for its upcoming Cadillac Lyriq will result in only two models for sale in the U.S. and Canada—one from Honda and another from its Acura premium brand—in 2024.

In Japan, EV sales in general have yet to take off as both Toyota and Honda lobbied instead for the government to push fuel-cell cars.

Sony and Honda’s collaboration faces challenges, particularly because its first EVs won’t be available until 2025, if all goes as planned. Unless the car offers a real technological innovation like highly automated driving, it’s unlikely to get much traction, said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, Germany.

“It’s likely the last opportunity Honda has to change course, but those that show up late to the party tend to lose out,” he told Fortune

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