Honda FCX fuel cell car
Honda FCX fuel cell car. Click image to enlarge


By Tony Whitney

The Globe 2006 environmental trade fair and conference, held in Vancouver recently, brought out possibly the largest crop of hydrogen fuel cell and alternative fuel vehicles ever seen in the city.
While transportation was not the sole focus of the event by any means, it is a key area for anyone involved in managing in the urban environment.

At times, there was almost a traffic jam outside the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre featuring fuel cell powered cars, hydrogen-fuelled pickups and other fascinating pointers to the years ahead in the automobile industry. There was even a highway truck fitted with the innovative and successful Cummins Westport natural gas powered diesel engine.

The Globe events have been staged in Vancouver for many years now – in fact, Globe 2006 was the 9th in this biennial series. To quote the organizers, “Globe 2006 is the latest in a series of events which have become the nexus for global networking and leadership on the business of the environment.” Key issues for the show and conference are corporate sustainability, business growth, smart energy, responsible investment and innovative urban development.

Honda FCX fuel cell car
Honda FCX fuel cell car. Click image to enlarge

Globe delegates (more than 2,000 of them this year) came from all over the world to explore matters of mutual interest and share experiences associated with their various countries. National pavilions were set up to represent Canada, Austria, Holland, Korea, France, the UK and the US. Canadian regional pavilions included those of Western Canada (Alberta, BC, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and Ontario.

Since transportation was very much “on the agenda” for Globe 2006, several vehicle manufacturers offered delegates the chance to drive alternative fuel vehicles on various routes around the city. For many of them, it was the first opportunity to get behind the wheel of a car or truck not fuelled by gasoline and experience it in “real world” traffic conditions.

Three automakers brought fuel cell vehicles to Globe 2006 – Ford, Honda and Nissan. Since I’d already driven Ford’s Focus fuel cell car – several of which are seeing fleet service in BC – I concentrated on two vehicles I’d never tried, Honda’s FCX and an X-Trail FCV adapted for fuel cell power by Nissan. (Ford Focus FCV: see: Ford’s hydrogen fuel cell Focus, Preview: 2004 Ford Focus FCV, Fuel cells: promises, promises! and Ford to test fuel cell car fleet in Vancouver)

Honda FCX fuel cell car

Honda FCX fuel cell car
Honda FCX fuel cell car. Click image to enlarge

The Honda FCX is a nifty-looking little hatchback and my first impression when climbing in was that it seemed very much ready for production. It had none of the poorly fitting panels or bits and pieces out of the shop parts bin that have often characterized efforts like this. It was well put together, tight and rattle free and generally imparted the same feeling of quality you get from the company’s production Fit, Civic or Accord models.

Honda fuel cell development staff were on hand to ride along and provide technical details and they were emphatic that testers should get immediately behind the wheel and drive away. 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.

The little FCX was a pleasure to drive with lots of pep and plenty of torque. Most people riding in one of these for the first time are amazed at the refinement and response they have. Electric motors react very quickly to a dab on the accelerator pedal with lots of torque. One rapid traffic manoeuvre I made even produced a chirp of rubber as the driving wheels spun.

The two-door FCX is a purpose-built rig and bears no visual relationship to any existing Honda product. It was designed with a low centre of gravity and a full-sized cabin and the interior is, in fact, quite roomy. In addition to having several FCXs running around in California as evaluation vehicles, Honda has actually leased one to a family in Redondo Beach – the world’s first fuel cell car customers. They are reportedly paying US$500 a month for their FCX and it’s used for day-to-day transportation – commuting to work, dropping the kids at school and so on.

Honda FCX fuel cell car
Honda FCX fuel cell car. Click image to enlarge

Of course, one of the things holding back production of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles is the lack of a really intensive fuel supply infrastructure, but this will change. A 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, head south from Vancouver on Highway 99 and Interstate 5 and the first hydrogen fuel supply operation you’ll reach is in Sacramento, some 1,300 km away.

Nissan FCV X-Trail fuel cell vehicle

Nissan FCV X-Trail fuel cell vehicle

Nissan FCV X-Trail fuel cell vehicle
Nissan FCV X-Trail fuel cell vehicle. Click image to enlarge

Nissan’s Globe contribution was a hydrogen fuel cell version of its popular X-Trail compact SUV, albeit with a few added body panels to give it a more “cutting edge, high-tech” look. Like the Honda FCX, the Nissan FCV seemed ready for production, with a great level of quality and refinement. Again, the little truck was responsive and amazingly quiet – in fact, one of the dangers of these vehicles is that jaywalkers step off the curb without even a hint that a vehicle is approaching. Of course, they should be looking both ways anyway.

Nissan developed the fuel cell motor for the FCV itself. Increasing numbers of automakers are building their own fuel cell systems, rather than buying them from suppliers. Nissan has leased fuel cell vehicles to corporations and municipal authorities, but not private individuals. The company started its fuel cell program ten years ago, so there’s a lot of experience and evaluation behind the FCV.

Nissan FCV X-Trail fuel cell vehicle
Nissan FCV X-Trail fuel cell stack. Click image to enlarge

As with other hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the only emission from these cars is water, which emerges from a stainless steel tailpipe and can be safely drunk. One enterprising Honda PR executive was actually standing by with a water glass so Globe delegates could try this for themselves.

It will likely be many years before we’ll be able to buy a fuel cell vehicle and the best contribution anyone can make to the environment right now is to buy a new car. The current crop of sedans, SUVs, minivans and pickups have never run cleaner, most pollution coming from older vehicles. Even so, it’s interesting to know that several automakers are well advanced with vehicles that produce no emissions at all.

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