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That's not just another new Honda, nor is that simply a pretty background. The car is the FCX Clarity. It is powered by hydrogen. It is being offered for lease in southern California. That structure in the back is Honda's solar-powered water-electrolyzing hydrogen station. It uses thin-film solar panels designed by Honda engineers (yes, they're even engineering solar cells) to generate electricity. The electricity is used to break the H2 out of the H2O. The hydrogen production efficiency is on the order of 52 to 66%. The hydrogen is compressed and stored in a tank. And then it can be pumped into the FCX Clarity.

The interior of the four-seat FCX Clarity is advanced without being something from the deck of the NCC-1701. The fabrics used throughout the cabin are based on plant fibers, not petroleum. The two things that are somewhat unusual: One is a center gauge that not only tells the driver how fast the car is going, how much fuel there is, and the state of the battery, but there is a ball in the center of the dial that changes size and color based on whether the driver is getting good, normal or poor mileage. The other is a shift-by-wire-based shifter located on the upper-right-side of the gauge cluster surround that allows the driver to put it into gear (the choices are drive and reverse) with just fingertip engagement.

HONDA'S FCX CLARITY: The Future of Transportation is Clear

Honda has been building fuel cell vehicles since 1999. Think of them as science projects. But now it is going to be offering a model in southern California for a $600/month lease.

Roadwork.

On April 20, 2004, Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, signed executive order S-7-04. It reads, in part, “IT IS ORDERED that the State of California is committed to achieving a clean energy and transportation future based on the rapid commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies; and BE IT FURTHER ORDERED that California’s 21 interstate freeways shall be designated as the ‘California Hydrogen Highway Network’ and the California Environmental Protection Agency and all other relevant state agencies...shall work with state legislators and key stakeholders, including local and regional government organizations, educators, energy providers, automakers, fuel cell products suppliers, financing entities, nongovernmental organizations, and community based organizations. . .to implement this Executive Order, plan and build a network of hydrogen fueling stations along these roadways and in the urban centers that they connect, so that by 2010, every Californian will have access to hydrogen fuel, with a significant and increasing percentage produced from clean, renewable sources.” Do you want to argue with him about the viability of hydrogen? 

 

Hydrogen density.

Yes, you can fill up your hydrogen-powered vehicle in California right now. Yes, there are stations along the “Hydrogen Highway.” According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, there are 25 stations in operation as of October 2007, with 10 more stations planned. Southern California—LA, Long Beach, Irvine, and environs—is where most of the stations are located. You might think: “25 stations. Big deal. There are gas stations that I pass on the way to work each day.” But then consider this: There are 25 stations in operation and about 180 fuel-cell vehicles in California. That means 7.2 vehicles per station. You probably would never have to wait in line with that percentage.

 

Gas: Natural & otherwise.

Honda has been working on fuel cells for years. Not just fuel cells for vehicles, although that is a primary focus. It is also working on stationary fuel cells. It is also working on the means to generate hydrogen. It figures that working with hydrogen is an important learning activity as it plans to be in the vehicle business for quite some time to come. The State of California may have its Hydrogen Highway. Honda is creating its own Hydrogen Intellectual & Actual Infrastructure. Consider, for example, the Home Energy Station IV. It is, admittedly, an experimental unit. But what it is engineered to do is to take the natural gas that comes into a home and (a) transform it into hydrogen for the fueling of a vehicle and (b) provide heat and electricity to the home, as well. It estimates that it can reduce the CO2 generated by conventional electricity production by some 30% and reduce the electricity costs by 50%. It has been working on these household devices since October 2003 along with stationary fuel cell provider Plug Power Inc. (www.plugpower.com). Honda, it should be noted, offers the Civic GX, which is said to be unique in that it is certified by the EPA to meet both Federal Tier 2-Bin 2 and Inherently Low Emission Vehicle (ILEV) zero-evaporative emission certification standards. That means it is effectively the cleanest internal combustion engine, bar none. It doesn’t run on hydrogen. It runs on compressed natural gas. And because they understand that you have to have Actual Infrastructure, Honda is working with FuelMaker Corp. (www.fuelmaker.com) to provide an at-home natural gas refueling appliance, Phill, for Civic GX owners. So it is this kind of thinking that is being carried over to the other gas, hydrogen.

 

Soichiro Honda was always up for a challenge, so . ..

Tetsuo Iwamura certainly isn’t as famous as Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he is committed to hydrogen. Listen to the president and CEO of American Honda Motor Company at the 2007 LA Auto Show on the subject of hydrogen-powered vehicles: “But the best way to serve our customers...and meet our responsibility as an automaker...is to continue to advance this technology and bring it to market as soon as possible. We realize that there are many questions about fuel cell vehicles...about the cost...about the fuel...and about how long it will take to bring to the mass market. We admit that the challenges we still face are very real. But so is our determination to overcome them. “

 

Packing in power.

For the most part, the science of fuel cells is well understood. Honda and many other automakers have been working on them for a decade or more. Honda rolled out with its first experimental fuel-cell cars, the FCX-V1 and FCX-V2, in September 1999. On October 10, 2003, the company announced that one of the problems vexing fuel cells had been resolved: One of the issues is operating at low temperatures; given that water is run through the stacks, that water can freeze. Honda’s FC stack can operate at -20°C. But Sachito Fujimoto, senior chief engineer at Honda R&D, and large project leader (a.k.a., “chief engineer”) for the FCX Clarity, points out that the FC stack is rather large, measuring 66 liters in volume and weighing 96 kg. It has a two-box design. So the Honda engineers went to work on something that was smaller and developed the V Flow FC Stack, a proton exchange membrane fuel cell-based system that is a single rectangular structure measuring 52 liters and weighing 67 kg. One more thing: the FC Stack has an output of 86 kW. The V Flow FC Stack has an output of 100 kW. So the volume output density is up 50% and the weight output density is up 67%.

 

It’s all in the design.

There are various reasons why improvement is being realized. For one, there is a vertical flow of water and gas (hydrogen and air) through the structure; the coolant flows horizontally. And the cells themselves have thinner, wave-shaped channels. Because of the efficiency that is derived from this, instead of requiring one cooling layer for each cell, the new structure has just one for every two cells. This reduces the overall stack length by 30% and reduces weight by 30%. What’s more, it enhances manufacturability—and manufacturing is truly the big issue that must be resolved before there are more than a comparatively few cars on that Hydrogen Highway. One more thing about the V Flow FC Stack: it can start up at temperatures as low as -30°C.

 

Simplicity abounds.

While there is the Honda Power Equipment operation that makes things like stationary generators, the primary objective of this work is about mobility. Cars, in particular. So Honda engineers have taken the V Flow FC Stack and engineered a car around it. It’s called the “FCX Clarity.” It might have been called the “FCX Efficiency,” because Fujimoto and his team engineered the entire system for efficient operation. For example, take the fuel tank. It has a 171-liter capacity. The gas pressure is 5,000 psi. The previous Honda fuel-cell vehicle, the 2005 FCX, has two tanks. The FCX Clarity has one. As a result, they’ve been able to reduce the number of parts by 74%, which improves manufacturing. What’s more, there is a 24% improvement in space efficiency for packaging. Because it is at 5,000 psi rather than 10,000 psi, as is the case with some other fuel-cell vehicles, Ben Knight, vp of Honda R&D Americas, says that there isn’t a need for tank cooling. Which simplifies the tank. Yet the range of the car is on the order of 270 miles per tank. “We achieved this not by increasing the tank pressure,” Fujimoto says, “but through design efficiency.” In addition to shrinking the fuel cell stack, they’ve reduced the size of the coaxial drive motor/gearbox used in the ’05 model from 301 mm in length to just 139 mm. What’s more, the power drive unit, which was a separate component, has been integrated, thereby reducing the height of the total unit by 24%. The ’05 FCX has an ultracapacitor for auxiliary energy power; the FCX Clarity has a lithium ion battery. The battery is 40% lighter and 50% more compact. Because the “powertrain” is more efficient, there is less heat generated, which means there is less cooling required. This, in turn, has resulted in a new radiator unit that is 40% smaller than the one in the ’05 FCX. Efficiency all around.

 

Healthy—& sexy.

He didn’t want to make it look “experimental”Marsaru Hagegawa is the exterior designer of the FCX Clarity. He says that while designing the car there were a few things that he kept in mind:

  • He didn’t want to make it look too different and possibly “scare people off”
  • He did want to emphasize the sportiness and performance of the car.

The FCX Clarity looks like a car that belongs on the roads today, not something out of a bad sci-fi movie. The FCX Clarity, with its short overhangs, long wheelbase, broad rear shoulders, and tapered rear appears to be a four-passenger sport sedan, not an environmental penalty box. Inside, the car is certainly, well, car-like. Yet the seat coverings, front and rear armrests, door trim, console tray, roof lining, pillar coverings, floor carpets, piece mats, and trunk linking are produced with “Honda Bio-Fabric.” Yes, they’ve devised two types of plant-based fabrics in lieu of petroleum-based fabrics. They’ve calculated a 30% CO2 reduction per car based on the fabric alone. And just as the outside bespeaks performance not of an unrefined-flour breadbox or other ecobox, inside there are the usual amenities one expects in a vehicle of this type, ranging from the obligatory cupholders to USB port to—surprisingly—climate-controlled seats.

 

They’re dealin’.

It isn’t clear how many FCX Claritys Honda will build. But build them it will in a volume that exceeds the few. The company is offering leases to customers in—of course, given the previously mentioned concentration of fueling station—southern California. Another reason is that American Honda HQ is in Torrance, so when the vehicles need maintenance, the vehicles will be dropped off at a dealer, but then shipped to the Honda fuel cell facility where they will receive expert care. Maintenance is built in to the $600-per-month, three-year lease plan. Collision insurance is included, too.

 

Driven.

With the FCX Clarity, Honda has taken fuel cell from being a science project to being a bona-fide car for the road. At this point that road may be the Hydrogen Highway, but regular streets nevertheless.