First Drive: Honda FCX Clarity
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles share a few basic components with a pure electric car. There's an electric motor powering the wheels, no reliance on petrol or diesel, and a lithium ion battery storing power. But where they differ is the ability to generate their own electricity from a chemical reaction between oxygen in the air and hydrogen, a renewable and abundant fuel, while emitting only water vapour. Range is ample, and refuelling times are measured in minutes, not hours.
So it's not surprising to see manufacturers taking a lot of interest. General Motors, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia are all predicting they'll have hydrogen fuel cell cars on sale within five years, and Honda has been leasing the FCX Clarity in California and Japan since 2008. This isn't future technology, it's already in use.
But there are problems. The United Kingdom has only two hydrogen refilling stations and even the most advanced infrastructure found in California, Berlin and South Korea is still limited and within a small area. For this to really take off, there needs to be a heavy investment in the supporting infrastructure. Once it gets there, hydrogen could be sold from adapted conventional fuel stations and even be generated on-site.
The FCX Clarity may have been on the roads for a few years but it holds up well to the newest electric vehicles. Honda wouldn't put a figure on how much it costs to build one, but suffice to say the $600 lease rate (including fuel, insurance and roadside assistance) is subsidised. The result is attention to build quality and materials that's usually only found in luxury cars.
Drivers will find there's very little to get used to behind the wheel. It starts with Honda's familiar push button, and a futuristic energy meter glows into life on the dashboard showing how much of the fuel cell's output is driving the car, and how much is being fed back to the battery.
Forward and reverse 'gears' are selected on a small tab on the side of the instrument binnacle, and it drives much like a large automatic saloon. It gives the characteristic instant surge torque of an electric car, differing only due to the high-pitched whine from the compressor feeding air into the fuel cell. Honda's next-generation fuel cell cars will have a quieter compressor, engineers assured me.
We're probably ten years away from hydrogen fuel cells becoming a common source of power in the UK. But as volumes grow and infrastructure improves, this is a fuel source with real potential. The deciding factor will be whether governments, manufacturers and fuel suppliers can come together to make it happen.
Comfortable, quick and with the potential to offer the ownership experience offered by conventional cars, the FCX Clarity shows a genuinely usable alternative to oil-based fuels. But it's likely to be a more European styled, lower-cost version which will end up on the driveways of most UK owners.
Type: Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV)
Price: Lease-only $600 per month (three years)
Fuel: 60 miles per kilogram (Hydrogen)
Electric range: 240 miles
CO2 emissions (tailpipe): 0g/km
Charging port: N/A