August 25, 2008

Feature: Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell car

Honda FCX Clarity
Honda FCX Clarity. Click image to enlarge

Manufacturer’s web site

Honda Canada

By Tony Whitney

Photo Gallery:
Honda FCX Clarity

It seems like an awfully long time since we first heard about the possibility of fuel cell vehicles and their amazing zero-emissions capability. Automakers and fuel cell manufacturers were promising fuel cell production vehicles as long ago as the mid 1990s with 1998 cited by one manufacturer as the debut model year for a real-world car. Although numerous prototypes have been built and countless millions spent on research, the results have been disappointing. Cynics might have wondered whether all the fuss was simply intended to boost the stock price of fuel cell manufacturers, and for a time, there was speculation that gas-electric hybrids would supplant fuel cell vehicles entirely.

But now one automaker – Honda – has at last stepped up to the plate with its FCX Clarity. Orders are being taken and a production line is already up to speed in Japan at the world’s first dedicated fuel cell manufacturing facility. This time, it seems, we’re finally going to get a production car with hydrogen fuel cell power – but there are still many challenges to be faced, as we’ll see.

Honda FCX Clarity
Honda FCX Clarity. Click image to enlarge

Honda has gone as far as to name the first five customers for the car – all of them in the US. Among the group are actress Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband, filmmaker Christopher Guest, and (LA-based) Vancouver actress Laura Harris. The initial focus will be on the U.S. and Japan, where Honda plans to lease 200 vehicles during the first three years of production.

Buyers have been “selected” according to their closeness to hydrogen supply facilities and therein lies one of the major challenges associated with fuel cell cars of this type: the lack of a really intensive fuel supply infrastructure. However, this will change: a U.S. Honda representative told me that he was serving on a committee with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is determined to create a “hydrogen highway” all the way from Southern California to Vancouver. Right now, if you head south from Vancouver to the U.S. border on Highway 99 and pick up Interstate 5, the first hydrogen fuel supply operation you’ll reach is in Sacramento, some 1,300-km away. A web site detailing hydrogen gas stations worldwide names five in the Toronto area and one in Surrey, B.C. – and that’s it for Canada.

The first generation FCX, which I test drove, was a tidy-looking little hatchback that seemed ready for production. In fact, some of these were leased and one of the five initial Clarity customers is actually trading his in for the second-generation model. There is no complexity about these current-generation fuel cell vehicles – at least as far as operating them is concerned. Just fire up the engine, put the shifter into “drive” and quietly head off into the traffic. That early FCX was a pleasure to drive with lots of pep and plenty of torque. Electric motors react very quickly to a dab on the accelerator pedal with lots of torque.

Honda FCX Clarity
Honda FCX Clarity. Click image to enlarge

The new FCX Clarity doesn’t look at all like the first-generation model. It’s a very sleek and attractive sedan. Honda describes it as “an advanced new four-passenger sedan design” with propulsion by an electric motor that runs on electricity generated in the fuel cell. The only emission is water and a Honda engineer involved in the project once demonstrated this to me by filling a glass at the tailpipe and drinking it. The car has all the creature comforts and safety features you’d expect nowadays in a mid-sized four-door sedan, including six air bags.

There are many advances over the first-generation FCX besides looks and spaciousness, including a 30 per cent increase in driving range, which is now up to 450 kilometres. The car boasts a 25 per cent hike in fuel economy, which now runs to a gasoline engine equivalent of 72 mpg. There’s a 50 per cent improvement in fuel stack power output density by volume – a technical term used in the fuel cell business which refers to the packaging of the cells themselves. Perhaps most important is the battery pack, long a source of trouble in the development of electric vehicles of all kinds. The battery pack in the Clarity is 40 per cent smaller and 50 per cent lighter than the lithium ion unit in the earlier FCX.

The old Honda FCX was the first fuel cell car to be certified for regular commercial use in the US by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. It was the first fuel cell car ever sold to a retail customer anywhere in the world and the first deployed with a fleet customer. The FCX Clarity takes the whole process a lot further and moves the entire fuel cell vehicle scenario into a new era of progress.

Honda FCX Clarity
Honda FCX Clarity. Click image to enlarge

More than likely, Honda’s debut of the FCX Clarity will induce other automakers to ramp up their own fuel cell vehicle programs and get something speedily into the showrooms. Many potential buyers – both fleet and private – are growing tired of the endless talk about fuel cells and their potential. They want choices right now when it comes to alternative fuel vehicles.

It’s not clear what plans Honda has for the FCX Clarity in Canada (Honda is talking “market expansion”) but hydrogen supplies would be a problem. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, though, that large fleets may find it economical to develop a fuel infrastructure of their own, or perhaps share it with other groups of fleet operators. A hydrogen supply facility set up at Munich airport to service a fleet of airport vehicles and BMWs roster of 7-Series hydrogen-fueled sedans is self-contained, producing the gas in a processor not far from the pumps.

Providing customers with good sales and service resources is part of Honda’s plan towards what it calls “advancing fuel cell vehicles in the real world.” Three auto dealers are handling the FCX Clarity in Southern California. All three dealers are located close to Hydrogen supply outlets. The “deal” for FCX Clarity buyers is a US$600-a month three-year lease agreement, which includes maintenance.

To what extent Honda is subsidizing this package is not known. Pioneering vehicles can be hugely expensive to build and Honda deserves full credit for creating a workaday fuel cell vehicle while most rivals are still adopting a “wait and see” approach.

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