Just before Thanksgiving, I sat down with Sachito Fujimoto, Senior Chief Engineer and Large Project Leader for the FCX Clarity, and Ben Knight, Vice-President of Honda R&D Americas. I and one other automotive scribe had the two men, and several of their colleagues, all to ourselves to tell us about the new fuel cell vehicle. Having already seen the car's introduction at the LA Autoshow, I was quite excited about what the FCX Clarity represented for the future of automobiles. After spending an hour or so listening to and questioning these two gentlemen, I was ready to buy one - and the test drive was still yet to come.
Honda enthusiasts and automotive futurists will know that Honda has been working on fuel cell vehicles for over a decade now. The first public evidence of real progress was the 1999 release of the original FCX V1 and V2 (the latter using methanol reformation on board) - frumpy, quirky looking vehicles based upon Honda's first electric car effort, the EV-1. That was followed up in 2001 with an updated version of the car, the FCX-V3, and in 2002 with the FCX-V4 that made it into the hands of fleet users in the USA and Japan. In 2005, a few individuals were treated to leases of the next generation FCX (which looked remarkably similar to the first, but incorporated much better fuel cell stack technology), including a family right in my own backyard. Finally, last year we were given a glimpse of the FCX Concept at autoshows - a swoopy, attractive 4-door sedan that looked production ready - and we were told that it strongly foreshadowed a production fuel cell car for 2008-2009.
Which brings us to today. Fujimoto-san's 9 years of work on fuel cell projects has culminated in two pre-production examples of the new FCX-Clarity, waiting outside for us to test drive. But before we sampled his pride and joy, there was much we wanted to learn about Honda's view of the future of private transportation. Ben Knight was responsible for giving us an overview of Honda's vision of environmental responsibility and the technology being developed to realize those goals. And one of the first things he said immediately crystallized the depth of Honda's vision in this area. Mr. Knight noted that prior to this century, the primary environmental focus for Honda (and all other automakers) was in the reduction of atmospheric pollution. But today, outside of diesel particulates, air pollution in the form of hydrocarbons and smog is a relatively low level issue in developed countries. Instead, today's focus among both automakers and governments, is on the reduction of CO2 to battle global warming. Regular readers here will already know that I think the CO2 argument is full of holes big enough to drive an oil tanker through, but we'll wait five years and see what happens to global temps. It was the third leg of environmental awareness that Knight discussed that did the trick for me though - resource depletion. Whether you agree or disagree with me on CO2 and global warming, it is difficult to ignore the fact that demand for natural resources is growing at a fast rate, especially as China and India modernize. And the most critical of those resources, oil, is not going to become more plentiful or less expensive, even as we bring on new technologies and sources such as oil shale and oil sands. Furthermore, a significant amount of the world's oil resources are controlled by dictatorships, oppressive regimes and terrorist sponsoring organizations. As long as the free world must hand funds to these entities for their oil, they will have power. I think it shows great vision that Honda chooses to base their plans on the resource end game rather than questionable interim benchmarks like CO2. And Honda's plans are clearly focused on hydrogen.
Of course, with all human endeavors, there is still great debate on the best way to power personal transportation in the future. Interim solutions such as diesel and gas/electric or diesel/electric hybrids have much to offer, but in the long run, most believe that internal combustion will be largely supplanted either by pure electric, or fuel cell electric vehicles. And the FCX Clarity already demonstrates that even an early generation fuel cell vehicle easily outpaces 2nd and 3rd generation gas-electric hybrids. Honda claims that the FCX Clarity already achieves twice the energy efficiency (tank to wheel) of modern compact hybrids, converting 60% of the available energy into forward motion vs. 30% for hybrids, while obtaining nearly 50% better mileage per gallon (gasoline equivalent energy).
In the longer run, the question then becomes fuel cell vs. plug in electric? The answer to this question is more difficult because there are fewer reference points to compare, but Knight points out that today, a pure electric car plugged into the United States national power grid will actually produce more CO2 (well-to-wheel) than the FCX Clarity using reformed natural gas. Obviously, this is hard to verify, but given the preponderance of coal fired electrical generation in the USA, it doesn't seem unreasonable. But even if CO2 neutral nuclear power becomes dominant world wide, fuel cell vehicles still offer unique advantages. The first and foremost is in refueling time. Unless one is willing to build swappable battery packs for electric cars (and it has been proposed), battery recharging times are going to be an issue on pure electric cars for the forseeable future. In contrast, it takes less than 5 minutes to do a complete hydrogen fill up on the FCX Clarity. And as hydrogen technology and infrastracture improve, this time is likely to decrease (higher pressures, better fill systems, etc.). Furthermore, fuel cell vehicles have a unique advantage in that they do not have to carry all their reactant with them. What does this mean? Well, in a battery, the sum total of available energy must be held completely within the battery. This means that batteries tend to be heavy and expensive for a given amount of energy storage. On the other hand, a fuel cell car must only carry its own hydrogen. The other part of its reactant, oxygen, is available from the atmosphere. And in the hydrogen/oxygen reaction, only 11% of the required mass of materials is carried in the hydrogen. Thus, a fuel cell car only has to carry little more than 10% of its weight in reactant. Of course, the story is a little more complex than that. You still need a 135 lbs fuel cell to perform the reactions and a small battery for supplementary power supply since the fuel cell does not react instantaneously to power demands. Nonetheless, Honda claims that their current V-flow fuel cell stack, 100 kW electric motor and Li-Ion battery weigh the same or less than a conventional hybrid powertrain producing less power. And to achieve similar range and power from a pure electric car today would result in substantially more weight.
Yet, even Honda will admit that there are still many hurdles to be overcome. They have clearly placed their early bets on hydrogen, but this is only the beginning of the race. Costs must be brought down (substantially), distribution networks solidified and bugs sorted out. When all the dust settles in 10-20 years, there will likely be a place for both fuel cell and pure electric. But right now, it is Honda, and the fuel cell powered FCX Clarity that have jumped to the forefront of ecologically sound automotive propulsion. Let's take a look at the car itself.