The Soul Behind the Numbers — A Conversation with the Creators of the 2017 Acura NSX
Because I recently had the opportunity to visit the San Francisco Auto Show to see a showroom version of the 2017 Acura NSX and attend an event with the NSX’s creators, here is my story of the NSX event.
The 2017 Acura NSX, known as the Honda NSX outside of the United States, is a remarkable car that packs a 3.5 L twin-turbo V6 engine and three electric motors, giving it a combined output of 573 horsepower that will launch the car to 60 miles per hour in 3.1 seconds. Even more remarkable is the opportunity I had to listen to the creators of this 2nd-generation NSX, which serves as the revival for the original NSX after production for the 1st-generation ended in 2005. Last Tuesday, November 28, 2017, Stanford’s Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab (VAIL) hosted the NSX Lead Exterior Designer Michelle Christensen and NSX Global Development Leader Ted Klaus in another one of its Open Garage Talks, where professionals in the automotive industry come to Stanford to talk about innovations in automotive technology. This panel was moderated by Diego Rodriguez, Chief Product + Design Officer at Intuit.
Rodriguez started with several questions focused on what the new NSX means for Honda as a company and how the car represents the spirit of Honda Motors’ founder, the late Mr. Honda. Christensen affirmed that a lot of the spirit from Mr. Honda still lives in the company. For her personally, she relates most to his concept of having respect for the individual and channeling your soul into the production of the car.
Indeed, much of Toyota and Honda’s success as the major automotive companies in Japan can be attributed to their company culture. While both are automotive juggernauts, they both value individual input, just as Christensen described. That value is shared amongst all employees, even those on the demanding assembly line. If one employee on the assembly line senses that the line is not working or producing to the highest possible standard, he or she has the ability to request stopping the line in order to share an idea to make production better. At Honda, they have a phrase for it: “Power of Dreams.” Christensen affirms that the “Power of Dreams” phrase is very much embedded into the culture as each employee is empowered to share their dreams and visions. Because Honda is a place that values the individual employee’s ideas and gives the employee an opportunity to voice opinions, the employee is comfortable failing and learning because they know that management trusts them.
Klaus and Christensen acknowledged that there were many tense moments during the creation of the new NSX. When the NSX project was conceived, there was no archetype to compare it to as cars like the Ferrari LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 Spyder did not exist yet. Essentially the team had to start from scratch, but one of the things that worked for Klaus and his team was embracing the human skepticism and asking questions to understand how to design a car that would make the driver a better driver. To do this, Klaus and his team looked to the 1st-generation NSX to capture key insights about the performance, driving feel, and interior of that car to shape the new NSX. Klaus and Christensen described the process as taking the 1st generation and updating it with newer relevant technologies.
These technologies and features are plentiful and certainly not always immediately visible upon a first glance. Christensen loved working with engineers to figure out the cooling placements on the car. Vents are critical to cars. There is nothing on a car that does not need to be there so each feature’s placement was finalized after a meticulous process. The proportion had to be right and stick to the NSX’s theme of purity. Klaus brought up the fact that Christensen took the lead on designing a new A-pillar for the NSX. The A-pillar on this new NSX is extremely thin, both in its material and visually. If you look at the car from any direction, the A-pillar remains thin and proportionally placed. In terms of features that were transferred from the old NSX to the new, the new NSX continues to pay homage to its predecessor with the same all-black roof and taillights that stretch across the entire rear of the car. These features are yet another example of the new NSX sticking to the theme of purity.
Towards the end of the event, the conversation shifted to a discussion about the future of the automobile and how the NSX is a player in this realm. In response to whether the NSX represents an end of an era where automotive purists are able to enjoy the sound and feel of a visceral internal combustion engine, Klaus posited that “the solution of a dual fuel car will always exist. The challenge is always the balance.” The NSX is a bridge to a future that could include cars driving with a primarily electric system, but still have a high-revving motorcycle engine to power the electrical generators. Klaus notes that in order to successfully navigate the challenge, we need to understand how to take something and properly value it for human emotion. Christensen is excited about the future of cars. Contrary to the often depicted futuristic picture of many people sitting around in bubble-shaped autonomous cars, Christensen believes that there will not be a future where no one loves driving anymore as attendees of the Open Garage Talks at Stanford are just an example of proof that automotive enthusiasts of all age continue to show interest in futuristic vehicles that promote driving fun. This will continue to inspire future vehicles that will continue to inspire that passion for automobiles.
And speaking of inspiration, that was the theme of the closing minutes of the event. When asked what each team member would tell themselves about undertaking the impossible after completely the magnanimous NSX project, Klaus responded with “in spite of the proofs or facts of the day, to dream bigger, give the team more time to solve problems, and always have the team’s back.” His logic was that if you trust people in a high-pressure environment where expectation is high, greater things can happen. Christensen, the more reserved of the two, would tell herself to be a little louder and stick to her gut beliefs.
The late Mr. Honda would have agreed with Klaus and Christensen. He once said, “We all have the right to crazy dreams. The day we stop dreaming is the day we die.”