A member of the Energy Empowers team takes the Honda FCX Clarity for a drive outside the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. | Photo by Sunita Satyapal
Stepping into the driver's seat of the hydrogen powered Honda FCX Clarity is like stepping into the future. A glowing blue 3-D dashboard displays hydrogen and battery levels and a power button fires up fuel cells that provide electricity. An advanced braking system warns the driver about impending collisions by tugging on their seat belt. A satellite navigation system locates the nearest hydrogen station, contains a rearview camera and is voice-activated.
Clarity uses energy generated from hydrogen combining with oxygen in a fuel cell to generate electricity, which powers the motor. Water is the only byproduct, resulting in an emissions-free vehicle. Electricity continually flows out of the fuel cell as long as hydrogen and oxygen keep flowing in.
High-tech bio-fabrics consisting of polyester made by fermenting corn cover the seats. "The interior is all plant-based," says Kent Dellinger, government relations manager at American Honda Motor.
In addition to its advanced technology, the Clarity has features drivers expect such as adjustable seats that can be heated or cooled, a booming sound system, an auxiliary jack and plenty of seating and storage space. Hydrogen is refueled using a connector located behind a small door similar to what is found in gas powered cars.
Ed Cohen, American Honda vice president of government and industry relations, says all of these touches help make alternative fueled cars marketable."We believe that in order for advanced technology vehicles to be successful in the marketplace, they must meet the same full function and performance parameters as traditional internal combustion engine vehicles."
A tank in the car's rear stores compressed hydrogen needed for fuel cells, which are located in the advanced fuel cell stack. The fuel cell stack fits in a console between the front seats and is where hydrogen mixes with oxygen, generating electricity. A lithium ion battery behind the back seat stores free energy generated by braking and acts as a supplemental power source. The power drive governs the flow of electricity and an electric drive motor moves the car. The result is a smooth, quiet and clean ride.
At 61 miles per kilogram of hydrogen, (one kilogram of hydrogen is the energy equivalent of one gallon of gas) Clarity is among the most fuel efficient vehicles in America. The car can be driven 240 miles before it needs to be refueled, which is a quick process. "Refueling time takes about five minutes," Kent says.
Since there are only a few hydrogen refueling stations throughout the country, Clarity is only available for lease in select cities. "For almost two years now, we have been leasing them to consumers and we started off in Southern California because that's where there are stations," Kent says. "We wanted to make sure we did it in a place where consumers would have no roadblocks."
Residents of Torrance, Santa Monica and Irvine who qualify can lease the Clarity for three years at $600 a month, which includes maintenance and liability.
Honda made Clarity available for lease in 2008 and plans to roll out a small fleet of the cars in Southern California to demonstrate the capabilities of hydrogen fuel cell technology.
Ed says Honda's approach could be a model for building America's hydrogen car infrastructure. "We believe that adopting a 'cluster' approach, where a station is built and vehicles are leased or sold in proximity to that station, can better assure the economic viability of the infrastructure.
Once several clusters are established, stations will be installed to connect the clusters and increase the realistic driving range of vehicles."
The Department of Energy has been an important partner in the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, Ed says. "Although DOE did not directly fund Honda, EERE's [The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy] funding for R&D of fuel cell and hydrogen technologies has been critical in enabling manufacturers to meet their performance goals and supply OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] with hydrogen and fuel cell components."
Ed says Clarity "proves that fuel cell vehicles offer consumers the performance and function they are used to."
"Fuel cell electric vehicles like Clarity are the best longer term solution to our nation's mobility needs," he says.