Honda FCX Concept

November 21, 2006

Fuel cells will power the cars of the future. We who follow the auto industry hear this quite often, and the vehicles admittedly sometimes seem like a distant pipe dream. But if Honda’s futuristic FCX Concept is any indication, the cars are a lot closer to reality than many might think.


A production version closely based on this FCX Concept, first shown on the 2005 auto show circuit, is already confirmed to be headed for limited production, with the first deliveries occurring sometime in calendar year 2008. According to Honda, the 2008 FCX “will be the most advanced and powerful hydrogen fuel-cell passenger car on the planet.”


It’s not officially certified for U.S. roads, but the production version to come in 2008 will very closely follow it, both mechanically and cosmetically. Honda currently has only two completely finished and fully functioning FCX Concepts, and as a gesture of their complete confidence in the motoring press, both were brought out to California’s Monterey Peninsula so that, within the confines of Laguna Seca Raceway, we could be allowed some significant seat time behind the wheel.


Fuel-cell primer


But first, a little fuel-cell primer: The governing concept behind a fuel-cell is that there are two electrode layers separated by a thin proton exchange membrane, together called membrane electrode assembly (MEA) layers. Hydrogen enters from one side, while oxygen enters from the other. Oxygen from the air attracts the hydrogen’s protons, and as the protons pass through the membrane, there are two results: 1) water is formed, and 2) electrons are caught in the membrane and brought through a circuit to create an electrical current. A fuel-cell stack combines hundreds of these cells, basically serving as a giant battery pack comprised of hundreds of cells in series.


To simplify even further in case too many notes were being passed during your high-school physics class, a fuel cell is a sort of battery that never needs to be recharged, just fueled with hydrogen. And in such a vehicle, the fuel-cell stacks provide electricity to power what’s essentially otherwise an electric car.


Honda has moved very quickly to not only develop a practical fuel-cell vehicle but also to develop the fuel-cell stacks that power it. The automaker was a latecomer to fuel-cell vehicle development (it been researching fuel cells since the late ’80s but didn’t start its vehicle project until 1998, when Daimler-Benz and Toyota already had working models). On an early version of its FCX Honda used its own meticulously assembled fuel-cell stack but later opted to temporarily use a Ballard Power Systems unit that, at the time, offered weight and packaging advantages.


“We were still using a Ballard stack in 2002 when we simultaneously delivered vehicles to market in the U.S. and Japan ,” said Sachito Fujimoto, the FCX’s senior chief engineer.


Shortly thereafter, in 2003, Honda engineers overcame some of the design hurdles with its second-generation fuel-cell stack. Though less than half the size and weight of the previous stack, the second-gen unit produced significantly more power, more reliably because of a unitized seal system replacing separate seals.


Gravity on its side


There have been a few tweaks over the past few years to that design, but — again, aside from the car itself — the completely new, third-generation fuel-cell stack is big news. The so-called V Flow FC Stack is a major design departure, with the membrane electrode assembly (MEA) layers aligned vertically, rather than horizontally as in previous versions of Honda’s own fuel-cell stack and the Ballard-supplied one that preceded it. The V Flow unit also goes to a so-called vertebral layout — where all of the systems are aligned along a center tunnel that goes through the stack.


Glory Days cover

Glory Days cover

Thanks to design advancements, the whole stack now has the dimensions of a small suitcase. Its volume is down to 52 liters, from 66 liters, while the arrangement boasts improved water drainage (thanks to gravity) and a significant improvement in cold-weather startup performance (down to –20 degrees C). The improved water drainage aids cold starts, and heat mass is significantly reduced, so warm up takes a quarter of the time than with the previous stack. Most importantly, the new stack produces 100 kW — 50 percent more power by volume and 67 percent more power by weight compared to the second-generation stack currently used on the current, limited-production FCX.


And, in the new FCX concept, the stack’s more compact dimensions allow it to be mounted in the center of the vehicle, where a transmission tunnel might be for a rear-drive vehicle. Having the unit mounted low and toward the middle of the car brings better weight distribution and more packaging flexibility.


While the current FCX is an upright, slightly boxy, two-door mini-compact hatchback, the new FCX Concept is a sleek, swoopy, and low four-door sedan, comparable in size to segment leaders like the Accord, Camry, Fusion, or Altima. At 3700 pounds, it’s just a few hundred pounds heavier than those ordinary sedans — not bad considering the futuristic powertrain. It’s also much lower to the ground than all of those, for better aerodynamics and a lower center of mass.


Cab forward, long and low


Hot rods and musclecars like the Pontiac GTO ruled Woodward in the 1960s.

Hot rods and musclecars like the Pontiac GTO ruled Woodward in the 1960s.

The concept is very much a “cab forward” design. There’s no need for a large powertrain area in front, so the front overhang is very short and the cabin itself goes very far forward — although much of that interior real estate is occupied by an absurdly long dash top. Honda has made notable improvements in underhood space efficiency by moving to a coaxial powertrain setup. Keeping the motor and gearbox on the same axis saves more than six inches in length.


Pop the hood and you’ll see very little, as it’s just a narrow opening and the motor unit itself us mostly underneath the long shelf in front of the dash. There is a modest radiator/cap setup; even without an internal-combustion engine, the fuel-cell stacks and the motor need cooling (the motor goes up to 12,500 rpm). You won’t see anything that unusual from the back either; the trunk is quite normal-sized, if a bit shallow.


The long-and-low packaging works quite well inside. There was plenty of space and comfort all around, though headroom was a little tight in the back seat for due to the downwardly sloping roofline.


1951 Mercury Street Rod

1951 Mercury Street Rod

Despite being shown strictly as a concept, the dash, seats, and door panels looked remarkably production-ready. Only when you crawled underneath or scrutinized the details could you see shiny, machined pieces and hand-tightened bolts. Carbon-fiber panels lay underneath.

If the car were powered directly by fuel cells, drivability might not be so great, as there’s a time delay (of up to a few seconds) from when more hydrogen and oxygen are delivered to the fuel cells until the additional power is actually delivered. So some extra power on reserve is a must for real-world driving. Previous FCX models have relied on an ultra-capacitor for its ability to discharge quickly when more power is needed, but this time Honda is using a compact lithium-ion battery. The battery system fits under the back seat, adjacent to the fuel-cell stack, and boasts a 40-percent reduction in weight and a 43-percent reduction in volume versus the ultra-capacitor arrangement. Performance-wise, the battery has a charge/discharge rate that’s almost as fast as the ultra-capacitor while allowing extended power assistance to help high-speed acceleration. The increased capacity of the battery also allows the system to recover more energy from regenerative braking when available, increasing real-world fuel efficiency.


The range of a gasoline car


The battery system also helps increase the real-world driving range, operating with regenerative braking to recover power when braking or coasting, much like a hybrid. One of the targets in the FCX Concept’s development was to bring the range to a level that’s comparable to that of an ordinary gasoline passenger car, and they’ve finally achieved it, with an estimated range of 270 miles for the Concept, and up to 354 miles when driven in a power-limited eco mode — from its 5000-psi, 171-liter tank. As recently as 2004, the range was only 160 miles.


With the battery system and new software to fit its characteristics, the system has a much more linear acceleration feel, claim Honda officials, who also say that overall powertrain response is now on par with its four-cylinder engines, with added torque from a standing start.


That’s not an exaggeration. Despite its rather hefty curb weight, the FCX feels very peppy off the line, like a silent, torquey V-6, then more like a smallish four-cylinder at higher speeds. Power comes on very strong from a standing or rolling start, with nearly all 188 ft-lb of torque available instantly. Lift your foot off the gas and it creeps forward almost silently, like a hybrid. For now, the car is electronically limited to 100 mph, but we saw about 75, where the interior was quiet and vibration-free.


Hot rod

Hot rod

The instrument panel displays are display fuel-cell information in colorful, graphic fashion. A video-game-like “hydrogen ball indicator” in the center of the gauge cluster grows larger and turns red when more hydrogen is being consumed, while when very little is being used it becomes small and blue. Separate meters alongside show how much the battery system is recovering or assisting, and how much hydrogen remains.


A shift-by-wire system — much like that already used on several BMW and Mercedes-Benz models — allows simple shifting between neutral, reverse, and drive. Park is engaged with a button next to the small shift stalk.


Peppy, and ready for prime time


Mechanically, the car also felt remarkably complete. We were expecting a rather delicate cobbled-together, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time car, as concept cars often are, but the FCX felt quite stout. Even the steering felt decent and the car tracked well (the column could tilt and telescope). Although we didn’t push it hard on the track, it cornered with little if any body lean, confidently at speeds that would have had larger SUVs, and some sedans, leaning and howling.


There’s not much road or wind noise in the FCX, but you do hear a fair amount of motor whine and also, to varying degrees, the air pump supplying the stack with oxygen on demand, which sounds like a distant vacuum cleaner. For now the pump is a bit louder than in the current, for-lease FCX, but noise control on the new car is still on engineers’ to-do list, they say.


Now that Honda has improved real-world performance and cold-weather operation, and extended range, the next big hurdles will involve adapting the design for mass production, bringing down cost to a level


“The next stage is to bring the price down to a level that anyone can afford,” echoed Fujimoto, in Pole Position, an internal Honda Motor Co. publication. “The specifications for the stack and other components are now basically determined, so now we need to work on reliability and commercial production capacity.”


The company is also working on infrastructure alternatives, such as its Experimental Home Energy Station, a co-generational system that would be powered by natural gas, producing hydrogen for the car, while generating five kilowatts of energy and supplying hot water for home use.


fuzzy dice

fuzzy dice

While an ordinary gasoline vehicle has an efficiency of just over 15 percent, and just five years ago Honda’s fuel-cell vehicles were demonstrating about 30 percent efficiency, the FCX Concept posts an efficiency of nearly 60 percent, based on hydrogen generation from natural gas. Also using natural gas to make hydrogen, Honda says that greenhouse gas emissions would be less than half that of a conventional gasoline vehicle. And as more renewable energy sources come on line, emissions could continue to drop.


What kept us optimistic long after the drive is that the FCX Concept will be a real car, through and through, with no big sacrifices or disappointments. Though the hydrogen infrastructure to support fuel-cell vehicles has yet to be established beyond a couple dozen small units in California and a handful elsewhere, and the idea of making a profit on an affordable fuel-cell vehicle is still daunting, Honda has shown that the car itself is almost there.


Can the rest of it really be that far behind?


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