A Lamborghini Murciélago zips by as we cruise through central New Jersey on Route 78 West. My fellow motorists watch the sleek, $350,000 roadster until it slips out of sight but pay no mind to our tidy, four-door sedan. The only clues that our car is at all unusual are its exterior badges, its ultraquiet operation and a faint but persistent compressor whine. In reality, however, our 2008 Honda FCX Clarity is a potentially revolutionary vehicle: hydrogen fills its gas tank and powers its fuel cell.
"Nobody notices us even though this car probably costs as much as the Lambo," I observe. Unconfirmed reports say the Clarity costs more than $200,000, but Chris Naughton, the Honda rep sitting in the passenger seat, refuses to disclose the price tag. "This car is a lot cleaner," he offers.
His statement is undoubtedly true: Nine pounds (4 kilograms) of hydrogen gas stored in a 5,000-pound-per-square-inch tank flows into a compact fuel-cell "stack" parked between our seats, where the gas molecules are ionized by catalysts, shedding electrons in the process. The resulting positive ions pass through a thin, selective polymer membrane whereas the electrons flow to a 134-horsepower electric-drive motor. When the electrons emerge, they recombine with the positive hydrogen ions as well as with oxygen atoms from the air to form water. Water vapor, and not much else, emerges from the tailpipe.
Fuel cells hit the road
The latest fuel cell cars are nearly indistinguishable from conventional vehicles in looks and, to a large extent, performance. More than a thousand of them are said to ply roads worldwide. Yet the evolving environmentally friendly propulsion technology is still priced far out of reach for most motorists.
Honda plans to lease about 200 of what it calls the first production fuel-cell car for $600 a month during the next three years. But that program is aimed at demonstrating the technology in everyday use until production volumes rise enough to start cutting manufacturing costs. In the meantime, other automakers have fielded fleets of prototypes, including Mercedes-Benz (F-Cell), General Motors (Equinox FCV), Ford (Focus FCV) and Nissan (X-Trail FCV).
In the U.S. many of those fuel-cell cars are concentrated in California, but even the Golden State has only 18 hydrogen fuel stations in operation, far too few to service many vehicles. Honda must therefore limit its fuel-cell leases to customers who live near one of three 24/7 public hydrogen outlets around Los Angeles.
These circumstances highlight another major obstacle to greater adoption of the technology—the lack of a nationwide hydrogen distribution and refueling infrastructure. Chris and I are driving about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from New York City to fill up at a hydrogen station in Allentown, Pa., that is run by Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., one of the few such facilities in the Northeast. There, I learn that the actual five-minute "gassing-up" procedure is a snap, as it closely resembles standard refueling with gasoline.
The Air Products folks are reassuring about the safety of the refueling process. Nick Pugliese, an engineer, cites the industry's half century of experience with handling the flammable gas and that fact that his company has safely refueled more than 72,000 vehicles.
Air Products naturally is bullish on expanding the domestic hydrogen production and distribution system, so Pugliese discusses several pathways by which the nation’s infrastructure could be enlarged with help from the energy industry and the U.S. government. But he is less forthcoming regarding the pump price of hydrogen, alluding to the many factors that determine costs. Hydrogen reportedly goes for $5 to $10 per kilogram (2.2 pounds)—or more—across the country. Advocates claim that the high energy efficiency of fuel-cell drivetrains make hydrogen competitive with gasoline on a per-mile basis.
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.