Sony-Honda vehicles might end up with competing dealers

The executives said the auto industry is on the verge of change.

Sony, inventor of the Walkman, and Honda, purveyor of the breakthrough CVCC engine used in the first-generation Civic, are pioneering a new cross-sector approach that marries consumer electronics with passenger cars, as automobiles become software-centric computers on wheels.

American tech giant Apple, for example, has pondered a plunge into automotive and was even rumored to be considering a tie-up with Hyundai.

Chinese players are also increasingly ambitious. Baidu, that country’s counterpart to Google, is collaborating with BAIC Motor Co. to build and deploy a fleet of full-electric crossovers and robotaxis. Telecom network juggernaut Huawei Technologies Co. plans to invest $1 billion in EV development, while smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp. has said it wants to plow $10 billion into making pure-electric vehicles over the next decade.

For automakers, such tie-ups help slash development time and bring new services for customers, said Zhou Lei, a partner at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting in Tokyo. For tech companies, the new partnerships allow them to tap an entirely new revenue stream in the mobility field.

“They want to create a new business model,” Zhou said. “In Japan, industries are traditionally very vertical, but this is a horizontal approach and a new case worldwide. Japan’s auto industry needs this kind of venture to bring in new ideas and energy.”

Sony said it is bringing a new twist to the automotive mix with a toolbox of digital technologies and its library of media content, courtesy of the company’s movie, music and video gaming units. Afeela has also signed a partnership with Epic Games, creator of such hits as Fortnite, to develop an on-the-go entertainment space that “seamlessly” integrates the “real and virtual worlds.”

The Afeela concept car was unveiled in January at CES in Las Vegas, bristling with 45 cameras and other sensors. Sony will provide optical sensors for automated driving functions and time-of-flight sensors for the driver monitoring system. It is even developing its first in-house lidar sensors to use on the car, said Kawanishi, who came from Sony.

The Afeela will be capable of Level 3 autonomous driving from the start, the partners promised.

To power all this digital gadgetry, Afeela’s midsize sedan will get a high-spec microprocessor set from partner Qualcomm that is capable of rifling off 800 trillion operations per second. The chip sets in today’s cars, by contrast, typically range from 10 to 50 trillion operations per second.

“That is very aggressive, very advanced technology in the mobility world,” Kawanishi said.

Mizuno said that leaning on Sony’s technology might slash the new-car development timeline by 20 to 30 percent, compared with Honda’s traditional cycle.

Carly Schaffner in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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