Preview: Honda FCX

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The future is here…well, almost.

The future, to believe many experts, is one dependent on hydrogen, the most abundant, and potentially the cleanest, fuel in the universe.

Automakers around the world are racing to find ways to utilize the lightweight gas. Some are developing versions of the conventional internal combustion engine that can burn it instead of conventional gasoline. Most, though, are working with the fuel cell, a device that combines hydrogen with oxygen, creating electric current and, in the process, emits mere water vapor as its exhaust.

Dozens of prototype fuel cell vehicles, or FCVs, are now on the road, most in California, where they’re being put through their paces as part of an industry/government consortium. But TheCarConnection had an opportunity to drive one of the most promising during a midday break at the New York Auto Show.

One Civic-sized step…

Honda’s FCX is a Civic-size hatchback, a relatively comfortable and conventional four-seater, unlike the automaker’s high-mileage Insight gasoline/electric hybrid. The fuel cell vehicle is also the first of its breed to be formally certified by the federal government for day-to-day driving.

There’s good reason to mention both the Civic and Insight. The latter is really little more than a demonstration project, an ultra-light, teardrop-shaped two-seater that really doesn’t meet the practical needs of most motorists. The Civic, on the other hand, is one of America’s best-selling automobiles, and a good benchmark for both drivability and functionality.

Honda FCXHow does the FCX compare? Visually, it’s an attractive, if conventional looking subcompact. Your first sense that something might be a bit unusual comes when you lift the hood. Rather than a conventional IC engine, most of the space is taken up with a well-packaged fuel cell stack.

We’ll keep the chemistry lesson simple, so suffice it to say that hydrogen is pumped into one side of the stack, then drawn through a special polymer membrane coated with a bath of rare metals, such as platinum. On the other side of the stack, the hydrogen combines with oxygen from plain air to form water vapor — and electricity, which is used to power the FCX’s electric motor.

The FCX is rated at 80 horsepower, though that’s a somewhat misleading figure. Electric motors develop most of their torque the moment they start spinning. And the FCX puts out an impressive 210 pound-feet of torque, so as we slip the transmission into gear and lean on the accelerator, we’re tossed back into our seats and rewarded with an unexpected squeal from the tires.

The hatchback “accelerates up to 30 (mph) faster than a Civic and about as well as a Civic above 30,” explains Stephen Ellis, Honda’s manager of alternative fuel vehicles.

Javits run

That’s good news as we turn north from the Jacob Javits convention center and head up the West Side Highway. We easily merge into New York’s notoriously unforgiving traffic, even the city’s most jaded drivers staring in curiosity at the “Fuel Cell Power” decals on the doors.

Like the Insight, the FCX is a hybrid. That means it’s designed to recapture energy normally lost during braking and coasting. In this case, though, that power is stored in a device called an ultracapacitor, rather than conventional batteries. An ultracap can’t hold much power, but it stores and releases that energy quite quickly, supplementing the current provided by the fuel cell. That’s another reason why the hatchback has so much off-the-line acceleration.

Honda FCXIf you want to know what’s happening at any given moment, you can watch the maze of lights on the FCX’s instrument panel to see whether you’re expending or recapturing energy. In New York, it’s a good idea to keep your eyes on the road, though, as we discover when we miss our first, then second exit. (We have to admit we don’t mind logging a few more miles behind the wheel.)

The return trip is spent on city streets, dodging potholes, pedestrians and taxicabs. Ignore the special gauges and it’s easy to forget you’re driving a vehicle of which only about a dozen copies exist anywhere on the face of the Earth. The FCX not only accelerates but handles much like a conventional Civic. About the only notable difference is how much quieter the car is.

For anyone who has already driven a fuel cell vehicle, that’s particularly noteworthy because early FCVs had a tendency to sound like they had an air raid siren blaring under the hood. That’s the result of the compressor needed to force gases into the stack. Honda has largely masked that whine, though further improvements are under development.

Fuel-cell reality show

There’s no question that motorists want cleaner automobiles. But the reality of the marketplace, concedes Ellis, is that buyers won’t give up much to get those green machines. To become competitive, a saleable version of the FCX would have to match or exceed the performance, safety, cost and range of today’s cars.

Okay, so performance and handling are coming close. Range is one challenge not yet met. This version of the FCX can clock 170 miles before refueling, a bit more than half the distance a normal car can travel. That may soon improve. The Honda prototype uses special tanks to store four kilograms (8.8 pounds) of hydrogen gas. It’s compressed to 5000 pounds per square inch, but new tanks will double that to 10,000 psi.

As to cost, well that’s another matter entirely. Honda is charging the City of Los Angeles $500 a month for each of the five FCXs it plans to lease during a two-year test. That’s the proverbial loss leader. While company officials aren’t discussing production costs, industry sources suggest that fuel cells still cost anywhere up to 100 times more per generated horsepower than a gasoline engine. That’s actually fallen quite a bit in recent years and will likely keep plunging, experts insist. But Honda officials caution that they don’t have plans to bring the FCX — or something like it — to market anytime soon.

The vehicle itself is only part of the problem. Creating a nationwide hydrogen infrastructure is an even bigger challenge. There’ll need to be a production source for the gas, since unlike petroleum, you can’t simply pump it out of the ground. And then there will be the challenge of setting up service stations across the country.

It’s no wonder then that “It’s likely to be as much as another decade,” suggests Ellis, as we turn off 11th Avenue back into the Javits courtyard, “and it will take another five to ten years beyond that to build up significant volumes on the road.”

Yet after driving the FCX, there’s reason to feel a good bit more optimistic. With this fuel cell vehicle, Honda has taken a giant leap from the crude and rude prototypes of just a year or two ago. Sure it has a ways to go, but the FCX is the first fuel cell vehicle we’ve driven that we could truly imagine parking in our driveway, even in current form. The future isn’t quite here yet, but it’s starting to look a lot more real.

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