Cheap, green electric MC-Beta can drive and park itself

The young woman stands next to three Honda cars lined up, taps her iPad and her vehicle drives itself out of the queue and parks next to her.

She climbs into the car, pops the tablet into a slot on the vehicle's dashboard and the little car drives itself on to the road.

Meet the Japanese version of The Jetsons.

At Honda's research and development centre at Tochigi, two hours north of Tokyo, the international media is being shown the company's micro-size electric vehicle, the MC-Beta, that can be autonomous.


With a 15kW/57Nm electric engine and at 2.495m long, 1.280m wide and 1.545m high, the tiny commuter can hit 70km/h with a range of 80km before the battery needs recharging - which can be done in less than three hours.

Designed to fit two adults sitting tandem style, the little commuter looks like something Judy Jetson would drive and its technology is futuristic.

Using sensor and sonar-based technology, the car locks on to the lead car and drives itself to a set destination using what Honda calls "duck following": think a mother duck and her ducklings waddling behind.

The vehicle maintains a safe distance between itself and the pilot car, controls steering and speed and, once it arrives at a destination, the tiny EV parks itself.

This means the Japanese version of Judy Jetson can spend her morning commute drinking her morning coffee (or make that green tea), having breakfast and probably updating her status on social media sites via the tablet.

For most of us Kiwis the thought of "duck following" to work every day sounds about as much fun as trying to catch a duck, but with Japan's stop-start jam-packed commuter traffic and the prevalence of EV charging stations, it's an ideal solution for low-emission, cheap transportation.

Liz Dobson gets ready to test the mirco EV, MC-B, at Honda's R&D centre in Japan.
Liz Dobson gets ready to test the mirco EV, MC-B, at Honda's R&D centre in Japan.

The MC-Beta is known in Japan as an ultra-micro vehicle and in Europe it would be classed as a motorcycle due to its size and weight of less than 400kg.

Honda Motors used its motorbike technology to create the MC-Beta's pipe-frame body while the plastic outer panels keep the vehicle lightweight.

Size-wise, its rivals are Renault's Twizy, the Opel Rak-e and the Audi Urban Concept while the rush is on for many car companies to produce an autonomous car.

In New Zealand, the all-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class luxury sedan has distronic plus which means the car maintains speed and steers itself via sensors while the driver just needs a finger tip on the steering wheel for the system to work.

Audi just previewed its Piloted Driving in Las Vegas last week where, at speeds under 60km/h, the car drives itself.

When Piloted Driving is on, sensors watch the car in front to maintain a safe distance and monitor speed limit signs and lane markings.

The car monitors the driver and if their eyes close for longer than 10 seconds, an alarm is sounded.

While the German brands are using the self-drive technology in their high-end cars, Honda's MC-Beta is leaving the R&D centre and being trialled by Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in three cities - Kumamoto, Saitama, and Miyakojima.

If the trial is a success production of the MC-Beta is expected to start in 2017. Honda expects to sell the car for 795,000 ($9216), though don't expect to see it in New Zealand any time soon, as it's built for congested streets of huge cities, not for the weekend trip to Coromandel.

Which is a pity, because the MC-Beta is a fun car to drive.

Taking it for a spin around Honda's R&D centre, minus the "mother duck" lead car, the electric MC-Beta whirred very quickly from standstill to a nippy 50km/h and it manoeuvred around the track with the feel of a large motorbike - especially as it lacks windows.

The tiny tyres and the lack of power steering mean the MC-Beta has the feel of sporty golf cart though the diminutive size is comparable to a fancy bumper car.