by Richard Russell
Torrance, California – I have driven the future – and am impressed. These are exciting times as some of the sharpest minds in the world seek alternatives for the internal combustion engine. Electric vehicles are a flop – despite billions of dollars in R&D, a suitable battery has not materialized. The more likely alternative power source is the fuel cell. The scientists and engineers at Honda have produced what is arguably the best example of that technology yet – the FCX.
All major vehicle manufacturers are working on fuel cells. But where most are using existing vehicles – pickups and minivans – as test beds, Honda has gone to the next level. It has developed not only a working fuel cell prototype, but one housed in a completely new and purpose-designed vehicle. The FCX is a fully finished, crash-tested, certified passenger vehicle. I’ve driven fuel cell vehicles from other manufacturers and while they showed promise, none has approached the stage Honda has reached with the FCX. Not only is the fuel cell workable, the FCX has the fit and finish, ride and handling and noise-vibration-harshness levels of a Honda passenger vehicle, which is to say exceptional.
But don’t rush to your local Honda store and plunk down a deposit quite yet. There are a number of serious technical and infrastructure challenges ahead. Honda suggests it will be 10 to 20 years before fuel cell vehicles are readily available. But it has proven it can be done, invented some terrific new technology in the process and grabbed bragging rights in an incredibly competitive industry.
The problems include:
- Cost: The hand-built fifth generation FCXs cost about 100 times more than a conventional vehicle.
Range: Fuel cells have a range of about half that of internal combustion engines. The FCX has a range of less than 250 kilometres.
- Infrastructure: Compressed hydrogen gas isn’t widely available. Honda is using solar energy to extract hydrogen from water. The system at it’s R&D Center here can produce 5,700 litres of hydrogen annually. In combination with conventional electric power, it can produce as much as 26,000 litres or 71 litres a day. The storage tanks on the FCX hold 156 litres and take about five minutes to fill.
- Size: The fuel cell powertrain is currently three times the size of a conventional one. The majority of this is needed for the fuel stack and fuel storage, making packaging difficult. The FCX has room for four but very little luggage space.
Operating temperature: Fuel cells do not operate below freezing.
- Fuel storage: Storing compressed hydrogen at 5,000 psi is a challenge. The FCX system’s 156-litre tanks are triple layered – an aluminum liner covered by a layer of carbon fibre which is in turn cloaked in a layer of fiberglass. Honda is working on the issue from top to bottom, from it’s own fuel cells (currently they use those from Canada’s Ballard Power Systems), to development of systems would allow in-home refueling by generating hydrogen gas from natural gas, widely available in many homes.
One area where Honda has taken a different tact, and made what appears to be a breakthrough, is the development and use of an “Ultra Capacitor” instead of the nickel/hydride batteries used by other fuel cell systems. Fuel cells produce electricity to run the vehicle, but supplemental power is also needed. Most systems use batteries and regenerating systems to supply that added poke. Power is taken from the battery under acceleration and replaced during deceleration. But Honda wasn’t happy with the difficulties and delays associated with switching between providing and storing energy. It has developed what it calls an ultra-capacitor, which delivers instantaneous high-output assist during startup and acceleration, while also efficiently recovering energy during braking. It is also made from carbon and aluminum making it potentially far less expensive to produce than the elaborate batteries.
As it currently stands, with no further development, the Honda FCX outperforms the Civic Hybrid – impressive when you consider the Hybrid is currently the one of the most driveable low emission vehicles available. The FCX has an efficiency of 45% compared to 29% for the Hybrid and 18% for a current gasoline-powered engine. During a 200-km test drive from Honda’s massive R&D Center to Los Angeles, we covered a wide variety of conditions – from 75 mph on the freeway, to long stretches climbing the hills and twisty roads above LA to typical TL gridlock. Over lunch at City Hall, we heard from a variety of city employees about their experience in the real world with the FCX, which is one of the alternative fuel vehicles under assessment. Los Angeles is leasing five FCXs – two of which have been delivered to date – these will be part of a total of about 30 to be leased in California and Japan over the next couple of years.
You know you are dealing with a company run by engineers instead of accountants when it leases a $3 million vehicle for $500 a month. That’s the deal that caught the eye of City of LA officials. The Deputy Mayor told us Honda is also conducting all maintenance of the fleet and providing the fuel. But while the City gets a deal, Honda gets a fleet of running prototypes operating in real world condition in the most car-conscious market in the world.
We had a fleet of three fuel cell vehicles and three Civic Hybrids. Switching back and forth under a variety of conditions proved the FCX clearly superior to the Hybrid in terms of both acceleration and top speed. With 80 horsepower and a healthy 201-lb. ft. of torque the FCX surges off the line adroitly, has a top speed of 150 km/hr and a range of 270 km. Acceleration is instantaneous, due to the lack of a transmission. Honda’s own electric motor, a further development of that used in its EV Electric vehicle, can spin up to 11,000 rpm, allowing it to produce both low and high-speed performance.
The FCX is the only fuel cell vehicle certified Zero Emissions by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) for every day commercial use. It is also the first hydrogen vehicle to comply with the U.S. government’s criteria for zero emission vehicles (ZEV) and the only fuel cell vehicle to pass all crash tests standards. Honda even developed the system adopted by the SAE and EPA for rating and certifying fuel cell vehicles.
Unlike the competition, the fuel cell and hydrogen storage tanks in the FCX are kept well within a stout protective cage. The front and rear bumpers are larger for more crush space. Honda has crash-tested the FCX and it has passed all regulatory hurdles for not only occupant protection but hydrogen leakage. No other manufacturer is believed to have advanced to the stage where it has crash-tested a vehicle containing a fuel cell.