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Honda FCX Clarity

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The Honda FCX Clarity is the world’s first production hydrogen fuel cell car; so what’s it like to drive, and will you be able to buy one in the UK in the near future?

Honda has invested in the hydrogen fuel cell concept while other manufacturers have been developing technology that is closer to market, such as electric cars. There are various forecasts about the fuels and technologies that will power our cars between now and 2050, and they all agree that electric cars will start making a reasonable impact by around 2020, and hydrogen may become an important part of our motoring life between 2030 and 2050. Of course Honda hopes that it will see some return on its investment in hydrogen before then.

The Honda FCX Clarity, although featuring a hydrogen fuel cell, is basically an electric car, as it has an electric motor that powers the wheels. The big difference compared to a more conventional electric car, which generally plugs into the mains to recharge its battery with electricity generated ‘off site’, is that the FCX generates its own electricity on board by its fuel cell.

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How does it work? Without getting too technical, hydrogen and oxygen come together in the fuel cell in the centre of the car and when they combine they produce electricity. The compressed hydrogen gas is stored in a 171-litre tank at the rear of the car and the oxygen just comes from the atmosphere. This gives the car a 270 mile range, and the cost of the hydrogen needed to cover this distance is currently around £30.

There’s also a lithium-ion battery that collects, stores and releases excess energy from regenerative braking, and, together with the fuel cell, this battery also feeds energy to the electric motor at the front of the car.

In today’s world that is geared so heavily around CO2 emissions, the one big benefit of powering a vehicle by hydrogen is that the only ‘tailpipe’ emission is water. Of course, as well as emitting no carbon, there are also no nasty emissions that impact upon local air quality.

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Hydrogen is actually an effective way of storing energy; with an efficiency rating of around 60 per cent, that’s three times that of a petrol engine – and it’s also better than a battery-electric car. It also only takes around 3-5 minutes to refuel – this is much quicker than the many hours that an electric car can take to recharge.

The other point in the favour of hydrogen is that it is the most abundant element in the universe – although it’s never found by itself, it’s always connected with other components, such as in water – so it always needs to be extracted. Honda reckons there’s 50 million tonnes of hydrogen – enough for 250 million fuel cell vehicles.

OK, so that’s the good news; so why aren’t we all driving hydrogen-powered cars? Well, there are a few reasons. The first issue is that although hydrogen may be abundant, producing it has its challenges. And producing it with minimal CO2 emissions is one of the biggest challenges at the moment. Most hydrogen is currently extracted from steam reformation of natural gas, a process used in the chemical industry, and to clean the sulphur from petrol – there’s some irony going on here due to the fossil fuel links. However Honda still claims that hydrogen produced from gas has a 60% lower carbon footprint than petrol.

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When hydrogen can be extracted from water by electrolysis using renewables such as solar and wind – ie. with zero emissions – then it will start to look more attractive as a low carbon power source.

When we crack the production issue, the next problem is the hydrogen infrastructure to allow us all to refuel our hydrogen cars, and this infrastructure currently doesn’t exist – not in the UK, anyway. ‘Hydrogen highways’ are currently being developed in America, Germany and Japan. It’s hardly a highway, but there are due to be six hydrogen refuelling sites in London by 2012.

Last but not least, there’s the issue of the cost of producing hydrogen fuel cells. This is currently a huge figure compared to the cost of manufacturing a petrol engine. The expectation is that this cost would reduce as the process becomes more mass-produced.

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So we’re left with a car that is somewhat ahead of its time. The FCX Clarity isn’t currently being mass-produced, but it was due to be manufactured in a run of around 200 cars on Honda’s production line. The economic downturn has resulted in that figure being reduced to just 20 or so cars. For the few people who can get a car in America, Honda will lease you one for $600 (£380) per month – there’s obviously no point doing this unless you live near a hydrogen refuelling station.

One possible solution for the future is generating your own hydrogen at home. Hydrogen could be produced with the help of solar panels which could create 1-2 kg of hydrogen per day – enough for possibly 75-135 miles. The hydrogen could also be used to heat and power the house, however such a system is just not financially viable at the moment, even in areas with plenty of sun.

We drove the FCX Clarity on its first ever visit to the UK – so what’s it like? Here at Green-Car-Guide, we’re fortunate to be able to drive all the latest electric cars, and as impressive as many of these are, none of these are quite as futuristic as the driving experience of the Honda FCX Clarity.

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Unlike many electric cars, the FCX is a large, luxurious car, with plenty of space in the front and rear. Sitting in the driver’s seat, you’re greeted by a high-tech instrument display, complete with 3D-style graphics, that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in a spaceship. Of course the car is virtually silent when it’s switched on, and that just adds to the futuristic feeling. However this is taken to the next level when you accelerate away in the car – there is no noise of an internal combustion engine, but instead you’re treated to hushed whines and whooshes more reminiscent of an aircraft.

“Whooshing” is actually a sensation that describes the driving experience very well. There’s an incredible smoothness and refinement to the car, both in terms of the powertrain and the suspension – it certainly feels like a real production car, not some form of prototype. Acceleration times are equivalent to those of a 2.4-litre petrol car, so they are perfectly sufficient for this vehicle.

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Like electric cars, there’s only one forward gear, so it’s similar to driving a car with an automatic or a CVT transmission. As there are no gear changes, forward progress is remarkably smooth. The gear selector is one of the only things that takes a bit of getting used to. Because the fuel cell stack sits between the two front seats, the gear change mechanism can’t go there, so it sits on the right hand side of the instrument cluster. It’s a slightly unintuitive gear selector pattern at first, but we’re sure you’d get used to it.

Although the fuel cell stack is positioned between the seats, the technology actually allows the designers more freedom with the layout of the rest of the car than is the case with an internal combustion engine and associated drivetrain. In particular, the front of the car doesn’t have a large engine, so the bonnet of the FCX can be low and this helps to contribute to an aerodynamic body overall.

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Honda is also confident that it has ensured the FCX Clarity has all the safety features that any mass-produced car should possess, and it has gone through rigorous crash-testing.

The Honda FCX Clarity shows what motoring in the future could be like. If you can get hold of a supply of sustainably-produced hydrogen, then driving a smooth, refined, large luxury saloon that generates its own electricity on board represents an attractive future. It just may not be a future that we see in the UK for a few years yet.

Paul Clarke

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