Not all that long ago, fuel cell vehicles, or FCVs, were being hailed as the future of the automobile. These days, however, there's growing skepticism about hydrogen technology, and admittedly for good reason. While it may be the most abundant element in the universe, there's no ready supply of hydrogen to tap into. And even if researchers discover an efficient, clean, and cost-effective way of making the gas, it's still a challenge to ship and store it.
No wonder one wag dubs hydrogen "the fuel of the future - and it always will be."
Yet, while some automakers are backing away from their commitment to hydrogen power, Honda is pushing the technology harder than ever. The Japanese maker has announced the first five customers for its latest FCV, the FCX Clarity - it hopes to deliver 200 of the clean vehicles over the next three years - and has set up the world's first fuel cell dealer network to support the program.
Clarity is the latest in a running series of fuel cell vehicles Honda has come up with, and it features the newest and most advanced technology the company has yet developed. Honda claims it has boosted range to 280 miles, an increase of 30 percent, while bumping up fuel economy by 25 percent to the equivalent of 74 mpg for a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle.
At the heart of any FCV is a "stack," which you might think of as a refillable battery. Pump hydrogen in on one side, and air into the other, and you get water and a steady current of electricity, which can be used to power motors driving a vehicle's wheels. The stack in the Clarity is significantly smaller than the prior-generation system Honda used, and it puts out 50 percent more power per liter of volume. Meanwhile, the automaker has switched to lithium-ion batteries, which are 50 percent lighter than the nickel-metal hydride batteries Honda previously used.
Honda is by no means the only automaker toying with hydrogen technology. And General Motors recently launched "Project Driveway," which is designed to put a number of fuel cell-powered Chevrolet Equinox crossovers into widespread fleet testing. But Honda is the first to actually let consumers take home a fuel cell vehicle, as if it were any ordinary automobile.
"Auto companies can't explore the potential for fuel cell technology as the ultimate solution to our world's energy and environmental challenges by ourselves. Our customers are true pioneers and leaders in the effort to bring fuel cell technology to the marketplace," said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda.
The five customers are:
- Ron Yerxa, a film producer and partner at Bona Fide Productions from Santa Monica, California, who will take home the first Clarity in July;
- Actress Jamie Lee Curtis and her filmmaker husband, Christopher Guest;
- Business owner and automotive enthusiast Jim Salomon;
- Actress Laura Harris; and
- Jon Spallino, who has been leasing the previous-generation Honda FCX since 2005.
Realistically, unless you're just repairing a tire or replacing a wiper blade, you can't take a fuel cell vehicle into any local dealer repair shop, so Honda is establishing what it cites as the world's first FCV dealer network. The three retailers are Power Honda of Costa Mesa, Honda of Santa Monica, and Scott Robinson Honda. They're all located near a small network of hydrogen filling stations.
The numbers are modest, but Honda's FCX Clarity program is nonetheless significant. It should demonstrate whether hydrogen power really can deliver what consumers expect from an automobile. Along with other pilot programs, it could give a real boost to the futuristic technology and help develop a case to support the development of a hydrogen infrastructure - transforming the fuel of the future into something we can really live with today.