Honda Chases Silicon Valley With New Artificial-Intelligence Center

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A security agent guards Honda Avancier SUV after it was presented during Auto China 2016 auto show in Beijing April 25, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo (Copyright Reuters 2017)

Honda Motor Co. (HMC) is creating a research arm focused on artificial intelligence, an area where one of its American advisers says it risks falling behind.

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R&D Center X will open in Tokyo in April as a software-focused counterpart to Honda's existing hardware-focused basic research center, which built the robot Asimo, the company said Monday.

Car makers are racing against global technology giants and Silicon Valley upstarts to design new technologies for self-driving cars and electric vehicles.

Software drives the value of the largest businesses in most of the world, said Honda adviser Edward Feigenbaum, "but not Japan"--where computer scientists have been working on AI for years but have been ignored by companies. Mr. Feigenbaum, a Stanford University computer-science professor, is a prominent artificial-intelligence researcher who was formerly chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force.

"In Japan, hardware innovation continues to dominate software innovation, because it is seen as lower risk," he said. "Engineers and managers are more comfortable with hardware innovation."

"Initially, R&D Center X will focus on robotics and AI," said Honda's research and development chief, Yoshiyuki Matsumoto. "However we are planning to change our target areas in accordance with changes in the world."

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The X, he said, stands for "unknown."

Honda already has a research lab in the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View, Calif., that is talking with Waymo, the self-driving car project of Google parent Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL), about collaboration. The company is locating Center X in Tokyo in hopes of generating "something unique" to Honda, said Tsutomu Wakitani, the head of the new center.

Car makers have piled into Silicon Valley in pursuit of top technology talent, driving up salaries for engineers. Toyota Motor Corp. alone said it would spend $1 billion on its center there to drive autonomous vehicle research.

Honda and other car makers face a challenge similar to the one digital cameras posed for Kodak Co. or the Apple (AAPL) iPod for Sony Corp., Mr. Feigenbaum said. Those cases showed that the best hardware engineering was no longer enough to win.