Sony Honda partnership launches Afeela car brand

What's new about this all-new car company and car? Not much

By John Howell / Thursday, 5 January 2023 / Loading comments

We’re used to car companies telling us they’re no longer car companies. They’re now tech companies. That’s always seemed like bunkum, because if your central product line has four wheels and involves moving people from A to B, you’re a car company. Or, as the old adage goes: ‘if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck’.

But at least Sony is a tech company at heart, so the Sony Honda Mobility (SHM) partnership has some right to claim this new label. And it’s done just that at the unveiling of its new automotive brand, Afeela, which took place at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It’s even displayed its prototype car. ‘SHM strives to become a Mobility Tech Company that will pursue innovation in mobility by combining cutting-edge technology and passion along with people who pioneer the future with their creativity, based on our corporate purpose “Move people, through the pursuit of innovation with diverse inspirations.”’

If that sounds like the right words, just not necessarily in the right order, there were plenty more incomprehensible sentences during the press conference, spoken by Representative Director, Chairman and CEO, Yasuhide Mizuno. Take the name, Afeela. Mizuno said it represents feel, which rather makes you wonder why they didn’t just call the brand ‘Feel’. Why does everything have to be so esoteric? He also claimed the new car “expresses its vision of creating a new relationship between people and mobility.”

It’s not really ‘new,’ though, is it? It’s just a different interpretation of an age-old theme. We’ve seen visions of a grand future like this since the earliest days of motoring. In the 1950s, for example, the Golden Sahara II prototype wowed people with its glow-in-the-dark tyres. It also had automatic braking, which used antennas to scan for obstacles ahead, voice control and even a wireless remote control that could open the doors, turn the engine on and off, and could be used to drive the car from outside.

Now, those abilities were at least stupefying 70 years ago, and potentially useful. Indeed, we’ve seen many of those features appear in cars over the years. But the Afeela feels like it’s offering exactly the same lightweight innovations as everyone else is these days. Things that no one has ever really asked for, because they’ve never needed them.

Take the badge on the front of the Afeela. It’s not a badge, but a “Media Bar, which allows intelligent mobility to express itself to surrounding people using light, enabling interactive communication between mobility and people.” Let me try to put that in to simple terms: it’s a screen on the front of a car. And this screen displays messages to passers-by. Messages like, and I am not making this up, the weather, or the car’s state of charge. It was even demonstrated showing an advert for a film. I mean, come on, is that really the future of mobility we’ve all been dreaming about – driving a mobile billboard that tells people standing around what the weather is, which they know already because they’re can look up at the sky?

Mizuno also said, “We plan to use” Qualcomm Snapdragon chips, to “maximum computing performance,” and the car carries 45 cameras and sensors inside and outside to help the driver and car avoid accidents. And Afeela will “aim to develop Level 3 automated drive under limited conditions.” Okay, ‘plan’ and ‘aim’ don’t sound like the most robust words to use, nor does it sound like it’s breaking much ground.

We’re used to cars these days carrying many sensors and cameras, and the current Mercedes S-Class already offers Level 3 autonomy. There’s other stuff, to be fair, such as augmented reality sat nav – except Mercedes has offered that for some years, too. It also has cloud connectivity. Oh yes, but so does Tesla and many others. Come on, what’s actually new and interesting here? Give us something?

Perhaps this next statement will reveal all. “We aim to evolve mobility space into entertainment and emotional space, by seamlessly integrating real and virtual worlds, and exploring new entertainment possibilities through digital innovations such as the metaverse.” Nope, that just sounds like a lot more words, the crux of which is that, thanks to Sony and a tie-up with Epic Games, it will afford passengers the opportunity to sit in a car doing things they can do in their home already, like play games. Which is another thing you can already do in other cars. Oh yes, and it also has one of those futuristic half-steering wheels. Just like the Golden Sahara II had, and nearly every other futuristic prototype before and since.

The problem here (and it’s a problem we encounter with all ‘mobility tech companies’, not just SHM) is trying to read beneath the lines to find out what the substance is. What’s actually new and innovative? So often the language used to describe these future vehicles is so obtuse, it’s like trying to decipher ancient Sumerian text. It makes you wonder whether that’s the fault of the communications departments, or simply that there is nothing new or worthwhile to discuss beyond the introduction of yet another electric car. Too often there are no valuable ideas being proffered, aside from throwaways like the ability to play games, or pretending that the car understands its driver’s needs on an emotional level by changing the colour of the ambient lighting if it thinks you’re sad. 70 years ago the features being launched seemed useful and tangible. These days, they don’t.

Still, if you are convinced by what you’ve seen and heard, here’s some good news. You will be able to place an order for a production model based on this prototype at the start of 2025, and earliest deliveries (only in North America, though) will begin in spring 2026. We hope it’s worth the wait.

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