Senior Writer

American Honda IT to fuel innovation with generative AI

23 Feb 20246 mins
Automotive IndustryDigital TransformationGenerative AI

IT chief Bob Brizendine sees gen AI as a crucial component for ensuring the North American subsidiary of the Japanese automaker is finely tuned for the road ahead.

Bob Brizendine stylized
Credit: American Honda Motor Co.

The digital reinvention of American Honda Motor Co. may not seem as dramatic as its transformation to fully electric vehicles, but it provides the company’s 30,000-plus employees the engine necessary to help fuel the automaker’s ingenuity.

The Torrance, Calif.-based subsidiary of the Japanese automaker, which debuted its first hybrid EV in 1996, is moving into production its first all-electric, zero-emissions automobiles co-developed with GM this spring — Honda Prologue and Acura’s ZDX SUV — as well as another first: the CR-V with Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) technology co-developed with GM at a joint-venture manufacturing center in Brownstown, Mich.

The completion of such transformative EV and hydrogen fuel cell engineering — amid uncertainty about which technology will prevail as the industry standard — reflects the one constant American Honda’s VP of IT Bob Brizendine has confronted throughout his 36 years with the company: an ever-changing, winding road that never slows down.

“The biggest challenge we have is keeping up with the speed of change,” Brizendine says. “We have to constantly reshuffle the deck and as an IT organization be able to stay at least one step ahead of where the company is going.”

Naturally, advanced automation and robotic technology throughout the company’s 12 North American manufacturing plants relies on major advancements in digital technology.

And though the North American subsidiary has migrated less than 20% of its internal workloads to the public cloud, American Honda’s aggressive embrace of SaaS platforms ServiceNow and Salesforce and its well-planned AI strategy speak to the agility and flexibility of Brizendine and his IT organization in helping fuel the company’s ability to innovate at speed.

Generative AI takes a front seat

As for that AI strategy, American Honda’s deep experience with machine learning positions it well to capitalize on the next wave: generative AI.

The ascendent rise of generative AI last year has applied pressure on CIOs across all industries to tap its potential. For automakers such as Honda, generative AI provides an opportunity to enable their automobile designers and developers to innovate on a higher level, says Craig Powers, research director for worldwide digital business strategies at IDC.

“The automotive sector has not been traditionally among the leading industries when comes to transforming into a digital business, but the use of automation and AI has been of great interest to streamline supply chains and manufacturing processes,” Powers says. “Taking the next step with the use of gen AI to augment product development could be a major boost for automakers. The first companies to take that step forward are likely to reap the benefits from faster and broader innovation.”

In light of this, Brizendine has developed a five-pronged generative AI strategy to help move American Hone ahead of its rivals — one that is focused on internal use to enhance employee productivity and efficiency.

The strategy boils down to full corporate control over how generative AI is used by American Honda’s IT pros and knowledge workers, enabling a security strategy that can stand up to any variables. It also includes well-steered applications of generative AI for specific domains, such as development, legal, and customer engagements.

For more complex needs, in roughly 20% of use cases, American Honda is standing up dedicated environments internally for specific uses that require ingestion of Honda-specific content or additional security or data segmentation for effectiveness, according to company officials.  Examples include internal policies, call centers, and product development. 

Honda has plans to roll out Microsoft’s ChatGPT Enterprise, also called Copilot, for its Office 365 workers using Outlook or PowerPoint, for example, and is actively piloting a GitHub AI model to gain efficiencies in application development, application maintenance, and IT service processes that are primarily internal.

The IT chief says there is no discussion of generative AI applications replacing workers.

“We have embraced the human-in-the-loop concept. We are designing our AI efforts to really augment the human creativity and productivity,” he says, noting that the company’s pilot testing has shown significant productivity gains in document and data summarization as well as churning out data insights faster.

Finally, American Honda is defining how precisely it will work on generative AI applications with its dealer network, partner network, and its SaaS external service providers. For instance, Honda’s AI development team will work closely with ServiceNow, which is also implementing generative AI, to create the most productive applications for Honda.

The company is also working with other service providers and suppliers to design and develop the most efficient applications for American Honda’s business.

Training for tomorrow

Brizendine points out that the company’s overall AI strategy is tightly integrated with its data and analytics systems, which reside and run on a complex infrastructure that includes on-premises mainframes for specific-purpose workloads, SaaS applications, and use of both AWS and Microsoft Azure.

The key to a successful AI strategy, in part, is the quality and cleanliness of both structured and unstructured data, he says.

Training of its workforce is the other major determinant of how successful American Honda’s generative AI program will be, Brizendine adds.

To that end, American Honda has launched a multi-year training and development program to enhance the digital capabilities of its entire workforce — from top executives to developers and knowledge workers, Brizendine says.

“Top executives need to understand the capabilities of AI and how it can be applied to operational aspects and potentially strategic aspects of our roles. Then we have geared training to ensure that the digital people within each business unit are armed with everything they need,” he says.

There are many digital business initiatives under way, including IT service management and even entering the insurance business for recurring revenue, Brizendine says.

But no doubt, the transformation of business is all due to the company’s technology transformation. “There is a digital thread that links all of this transformation together,” American Honda’s IT chief says. “Our innovation in technology is first and foremost what enables innovation in business.”