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Honda Still Strong on Hydrogen Fuel Cells, But Eyeing Plug-In Hybrids as Well
As the once-favored hydrogen highway becomes a mere side road on the route to oil independence with the Obama administration's push for rechargeable hybrid powertrains as the new favored alternative to the conventional gasoline engine, hydrogen pioneer Honda Motor Co. says it, too, will begin to pursue the way of the plug.
In an interview with Bloomberg news last week, Honda Motor Co. President Takeo Fukui said his company still sees hydrogen as the best long-term replacement for gasoline in the effort to slash automotive emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases tied to global arming.
Fukui, who is stepping down in June as part of Honda's regular executive shuffle, has in the past has been outspoken in his disdain for plug-in technology, calling it an unnecessary intermediate step form gasoline to pure electric power.
Honda has developed a hydrogen fuel-cell sedan, the FCX Clarity, that it leases to select customers in a Los Angeles-area test program, and isn't planning to abandon the effort.
But, Fukui said in a Bloomberg news wire article published this morning, the automaker also will accommodate the perceived preference of the U.S. government for plug-in hybrid-electric cars and trucks.
Unlike a conventional gas-electric hybrid that charges its batteries from on-board power sources such as regenerative braking, a plug-in hybrid gets its initial charge from the commercial grid, by "plugging in" to a wall socket or a special rapid-charging station.
Plug-ins use larger battery pack than a conventional hybrids. They store enough power to permit the vehicle to be driven for an extended amount of time on all-electric drive before the grid charge is depleted and the gas engine kicks in.
Although others, including General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Volkswagen are developing fuel-cell vehicles, Honda has been the only major automaker championing hydrogen above other technologies and so far has stayed out of the rapidly developing race to bring plug-ins to market.
While federal support of hydrogen development has all-but evaporated in the U.S., the government is providing billions of dollars for battery development programs and for federal tax credits of up to $7,500 for purchasers of plug-ins.
Nissan Motor Co., General Motors Corp, Toyota Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co., Subaru and Mitsubishi Motors, as well as independents Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive, all are developing rechargeable cars - some using all-electric power, others using hybrid gas-electric drivetrains - for introduction in the U.S. and Japanese markets in the next few years.
Honda, which does build and sell conventional hybrids, hasn't made a formal commitment to produce a plug-in. But Fukui told Bloomberg, and said the same to other interviewers at the recent Society of Automotive Engineers conference in Detroit, that his company now is "thinking about plug-ins."
A recently announced joint venture of Honda and GS Yuasa Corp. in Japan to build lithium-ion battery packs for Honda's conventional hybrids could be extended to making batteries for plug-ins, Fukui said.
Meantime, Honda still sees fuel cell-electric vehicles, which produce electric power from an on-board thermo-chemical reaction combining hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of a catalyst, as becoming an economically feasible technology by 2020.
----------Major drawbacks are clean, energy-efficient production of hydrogen - most of which now is "reformed" from natural gas in a process that uses a considerable amount of electrical power - and development of a fueling infrastructure to serve hydrogen powered vehicle. Although there's no new federal funding on tap to continue funding U.S. hydrogen programs that were initiated during the Bush administration, Fukui said Honda isn't giving up on the technology.
Honda's FCX Clarity uses hydrogen fuel cell.
On the contrary, he said in the Bloomberg interview, the auto industry must plan for eventual reductions in oil supplies and for growing political and social pressure to reduce greenhouse gases for carbon-based fuels.
"Oil prices are going to go up. When that time comes, fuel cells, solar panels, hydrogen, those will be the key words," Fukui said in the interview. "We will have packages that will be very competitive at that time."