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First Drive: 2009 Honda FCX Clarity, world's first series production fuel cell car
C/N: It's a really nice car, even ignoring the "no gasoline/no direct emissions" part of the story.
From AutoBlog Green
First Drive: 2009 Honda FCX Clarity, world's first series production fuel cell car
Posted Nov 18th 2007 7:53PM by Sam Abuelsamid
What you see pictured above is the world's first fuel cell-powered car designed from the ground up expressly for that purpose with series production in mind. It's not converted from any existing vehicle like the Chevy Equinox, Toyota Highland and Ford Focus that you can find elsewhere on this site. The Honda FCX Clarity takes the layout and design themes first seen in two years ago in the FCX concept to completion. As we reported earlier this week, the FCX Clarity will be available for lease to retail customers beginning in the summer of 2008.
In the days following the world premiere of the FCX Clarity at the LA Auto Show, Honda invited a select group of journalists to drive a pair of pre-production examples in Santa Monica. As pre-production samples, these two cars are essentially hand built but using production tooling. Some reports have the value of these cars as much as $10,000,000 which may or may not be accurate for the current stage of development, but read on after the break to find out what happens when bloggers take to the PCH and Malibu Canyon in Honda's latest creations.
Before we got to hop into the cars, some of the chief engineers and designers on the FCX program gave us a briefing on technical and design details. The soft-spoken VP of Honda of America R&D, Ben Knight, started things off with some background on the company's efforts in developing more efficient, less polluting technologies such as the CVCC engines of the 1970s and the EV-Plus battery electric of the late '90s and on to the fuel cell and diesel power-trains under development today. Knight may be soft-spoken, but like GM's Larry Burns, he is very much a hands-on engineer with a passion for developing new technology.
While facilities for retail distribution of hydrogen are obviously extremely limited right now, Honda is actively working to change that too. Honda Soltec recently started production of new photo-voltaic cells that only require half the energy input to manufacture of current cells. Their Torrance, CA headquarters campus has a hydrogen filling station that features two different H2 generators. A solar powered electrolyzer produces the gas from water, while the experimental Home Energy Station has a natural gas reformer.
With the most common way of producing hydrogen right new is steam reformation of natural gas, CO2 emissions still remain a concern. However, when well-to-wheels CO2 emissions are evaluated in comparison to gasoline engines, steam reformation and fuel cells show a sixty percent reduction. For solar powered electrolysis, Honda has proton exchange membrane electrolyzer that basically functions as a fuel cell in reverse and is eighty percent efficient. Although home hydrogen generation is still a ways off, centrally produced hydrogen is being distributed via pipelines right now. Shell will open be opening a hydrogen station in Los Angeles next year right on an existing 8" hydrogen pipeline.
Exterior Design Leader Masaru Hosagawa explained that the body of the new FCX was specifically designed to highlight the tiny drive-train that propels this relatively large car. The FCX takes the cab forward design ethos to a whole new level with the base of the windshield starting at about the front wheel center line and sweeping all the way back to the edge of the trunk lid in a continuous curve dubbed Dynamic Full Cabin Design. Combined with the super compact vertical flow fuel cell stack that sits within the center console, the FCX has an almost limousine-like interior volume for four passengers.
Speaking of the passengers, keeping them in climate-controlled comfort is important but regulating the temperature of such a large interior volume can consume quite a bit of energy. One way to minimize that energy is to regulate the temperature right at the surface of the occupants. Since the largest point of contact between the passengers and the car is the seats, Honda has chosen to provide a climate control system within the seats. Fans draw air into the front seats where a thermo-electric device chills or heats it before blowing it through pores in the seat cushions. The end result is greatly reduced demand on the climate control system.
The FCX Clarity has remained remarkably true to the concept with the most obvious visual difference being the nose. The production car has been stretched out by a few inches in order to provide crush space for crash protection. The grille has now been moved above a new chrome bumper strip taking the place of the previous full-width light bar. In profile the base of the windshield extended even farther forward and the front quarter windows were part of the body. Those windows are now smaller and integrated into the doors instead. At the back, the full width tail-lamp cluster is now slimmer in the middle providing room for an extra piece of vertical glass aiding rear visibility with the high deck.
That tall deck combines with a fuel tank mounted down low between the rear wheels to provide for much more trunk room than other converted fuel cell cars. Including the under floor compartment, the total storage volume is 13.1 cu. ft. The fully-appointed FCX is equipped with all the modern conveniences such as a satellite navigation system, adaptive cruise control, electronic stability control. All of this is combined in an aluminum structural cage that provides protection for the passengers and the fuel system.
Chief Engineer Sachito Fujimoto described the FCX platform as having been designed to be lightweight while providing maximum safety. The FCX is designed to meet and surpass all safety standards in the US and elsewhere. When this car becomes available next year, it won't require any safety waivers. The 5,000 psi hydrogen tank is designed to withstand any impact it might see in the real world. While the first generation FCX used a two tank storage system, the new car has switched to a single-tank setup. Previously separate components like the pressure sensor, regulator and shut-off valve are now combined in one module mounted in the tank.
Having only one tank means fewer connection points that can fail so that safety is enhanced and installation is a lot simpler. A single larger diameter tank has greater capacity in less overall space than two smaller tanks. The bottom line is seventy-four percent fewer parts and twenty-four percent better storage efficiency.
One problematic aspect of many previous fuel cell vehicles has been high weight. The Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell being used for that company's Project Driveway weighs over 4,400 pounds and the Sequel concept reportedly weighs over 5,000 lbs. Even the much smaller Ford Focus FCV weighs in at 3,600 lbs. The new FCX Clarity weighs in at 3,582 lbs, which is only about 175 lbs more than the similarly-sized 2008 Accord. Doing a ground up design around a fuel cell power-train has allowed Honda to optimize it for the purpose.
That pays off in the ride and handling of the Clarity. While some other cross-over type fuel cell vehicles definitely feel more truck like on the road, this car is pure Honda. Jonny Lieberman and I set out from the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica in one of the two FCXs and headed west on the Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu. In a region heavily populated with Ferraris, Porsches, Aston Martins, Rolls Royces and Bentleys, the futuristic looking FCX seemed to draw remarkably little attention from other occupants of the PCH.
It's ironic that the FCX Clarity debuted at this time in this place just weeks after much of the surrounding hillsides were engulfed in flames. Fires at this time of year are pretty typical in this region, but 2007 was especially bad after a long period of drought. Global warming probably didn't cause these fires, but the high temperatures and strong winds certainly amplified the problem. We turned off the PCH by the Pepperdine University campus and headed up Malibu Canyon Rd.
Amidst the recently scorched surroundings of the Malibu hills, the electric drive of the FCX proved once again that torque is key to driving pleasure in the real world, much more so than horsepower. The electric motor only puts out 136 hp but the 189 lb-ft torque is available instantly when you press the go pedal. When the demand for forward momentum exceeds the output of the fuel cell, a lithium ion battery mounted under the rear seat provides extra electrons to the get the motor spinning faster. The single-speed transmission mounted co-axially with the motor also means no shifts to interrupt the flow of acceleration.
Pressing the pedal on the left brings plenty of negative acceleration. The pedal feel is firm and the brakes modulate easily. The electronic braking controls seamlessly blend friction and regenerative braking. During light to moderate braking most of the kinetic energy that's dissipated gets fed back into that lithium ion battery for re-use later. Pressing the pedal harder adds in friction braking as needed. Don't bother asking who the battery supplier is or what kind of chemistry it uses. I asked several Honda reps and got nothing more than non-committal smiles.
What you don't get is noise of any significance. The muted hum of the motor is barely audible and the slick aerodynamics mean no wind noise either. It's not quite as tomb-like as a Lexus but it's quieter than an Acura RL. Through the twists of the canyon road, the Clarity always remained flat and stable. With the lightweight structure and all the hardware mounted low in the chassis, the FCX probably has a very low center of gravity which combines with the double wishbone suspension to keep everything under control. None of the surfaces we tried were quite up to the quality standard of Michigan roads I'm used to, so it's hard to really judge the ride quality but it certainly didn't feel any worse than a new Accord.
On the way back down the canyon, we stopped by the Malibu Presbyterian Church which was destroyed by the fires. One has to wonder if a world full of cars like the FCX spewing nothing but water from their exhaust might have alleviated the severity of the inferno. Perhaps, perhaps not, but either way one thing is certain. Looking at the FCX Clarity strictly as a car, ignoring the advanced power source, it comes across as an exceptionally roomy, quiet, fine handling car with decent acceleration and modern styling. Oh yeah there's no toxic emissions either. But if you skip over that last part, it's just a really good car.
Getting one will be somewhat more problematic than driving one. When they launch next summer, they will be available in Japan and in Southern California in limited numbers. To get one you'll have to live within reasonable proximity of one of the hydrogen filling stations. Honda is also looking for customers who have a reasonably high income and a multi-car household. The main reason for the latter is so that if customers need to take a longer trip they have an option. The Clarity might have a 270-mile range, but filling stations are still extremely limited. The Nav system is programmed to pull up locations of hydrogen stations and give directions if needed.
If you do qualify, the Clarity will cost you $600 a month for three years which will get you the car, maintenance and collision insurance. The insurance is because the actual cost of the cars is still high enough to be prohibitively expensive. Unlike with GM's Project Driveway, lessees will have to pony up for fuel. However, that shouldn't be too painful. The FCX averages 68 miles/kg with 1 kg of hydrogen having almost the equivalent energy content to a gallon of gasoline. A new four-cylinder Accord averages in the mid-twenties on gasoline or about one third of the FCX's mileage.
As for the cost of hydrogen, the stations that currently exist in California are selling it for about $5/kg retail. With gasoline currently running close to $4/gallon in the same area, the FCX will be a lot cheaper to operate. Assuming 25 mpg at $4, an Accord would cost $43.20 to drive 270 miles. The same distance in an FCX Clarity at $5/kg will run $19.85. That's not a bad deal for taking a huge leap into the future. When it comes to concerns about cars being taken back at the end of a lease, the rationale is that this technology is still developing.
The current price point is still well below the cost and Honda will likely reclaim these particular units at some point in the future as the vehicles evolve. Neither Honda nor anyone else is exactly sure where it's going to go although Honda seems fully committed to the program. Current Honda fuel cell vehicle lessees like the Spallino family have had their leases extended until the new cars are available. Moving forward as manufacturing costs drop and hydrogen hopefully becomes more available at retail, the program will evolve and grow. For now, Honda is the first to make dedicated fuel cell-powered car that, aside from geographical fueling restrictions, requires essentially no compromises from drivers. It's as fully functional as any mid-luxury sedan on the market today with all the expected amenities, lower-than-normal operating costs and a style doesn't look out of place in one of the most affluent areas of this country.
Last edited by Chromer; 11-19-2007 at 08:40 PM.