A real car
During the test drive, I find that the four-seat FCX Clarity is agile and fun to drive, although the electric power steering feels a bit detached. As with all electric-drive cars, it is unnervingly quiet and provides immediate maximum torque, enabling, for example, jackrabbit starts.
The car's surprisingly roomy interior is utilitarian and ergonomic, yet elegant in a futuristic kind of way. Electronic doodads abound: sophisticated navigation and audio systems; power-saving heated and cooled seats; power windows and mirror controls; along with a radar-based forward collision warning system that alerts if there are hazards ahead, even hitting the brakes if necessary. The rear trunk stores about 13 cubic feet (0.37 cubic meter) of cargo.
Among the downsides: an occasional several-second delay during start-ups, although probably the biggest shortcoming is the clumsy gearshift control on the dashboard that one pulls in and down for "drive," and up for "reverse".
The car's energy-use gauge is one of the truly positive aspects. Gas-electric hybrids often feature difficult to decipher displays, but the FCX Clarity employs a simple central dashboard ball that changes size and color to guide the motorist to drive more efficiently. Easy-to-read indicator bars show whether the power train is consuming hydrogen or just electricity from the 288-volt lithium ion battery, or charging up from its power-regenerative brakes.
The return drive
Our 200-mile (320-kilometer) round-trip points out the other drawback of today's fuel-cell vehicles—insufficient driving range, a shortfall caused by limited fuel-storage capacity. Although Honda says that the FCX Clarity has a range of 280 miles (450 kilometers), and offers 79 miles per gallon, or 33.5 kilometers per liter (of gasoline equivalent) in city driving and 68 mpg (29 kpl) on the highway, we are somewhat hard-pressed to be certain enough fuel reserves remain to ensure that Naughton's return trip to Allentown tomorrow is no gamble. I am free to drive at fast as I wish on the way out, but he requests that I maintain greater fuel efficiency on the return trip. By cruising at just a bit over the speed limit, we enter Manhattan with a reasonable, 65-mpg fuel economy number and considerably more than half a tank of hydrogen.
The prospects for fuel-cell technology boil down to a chicken-and-egg problem: Without more hydrogen cars, there will not be more hydrogen service stations, and without readily accessible stations, drivers will not demand more fuel-cell cars—leaving them an uneconomical and impractical option for everyday travel. As a result, the future of the fuel-cell as an automotive power source remains stuck in neutral.