So this is a ‘production fuel cell car’? Can’t find it in the Honda price list…
You won’t. California law requires big car makers to offer zero-emission vehicles as part of their line-up, and the hydrogen fuel-cell powered FCX is Honda’s latest. It will hand-build fewer than 100 from 2008 and ‘lease’ them to high-profile or worthy users for a fraction of what it costs to make. So you might not be able to order one, but the real significance of the FCX is that it shows that if we can crack the problems still surrounding hydrogen fuel we’ll be able to drive just like we do now when the oil finally runs out. The FCX does 0-60mph in 10 seconds, 100mph and has a range of over 350 miles. And it’s sexy, isn't it?
I sense a ‘but’ coming on…
Yes – a big one. We still can’t manufacture hydrogen in a green and financially viable way, and there’s no hydrogen infrastructure to get it into our tanks. This is a problem facing all hydrogen-powered vehicles, including those, like the BMW Hydrogen 7, that burn H2 in an otherwise standard internal combustion engine. But fuel-cell cars like the FCX face a second hurdle. The fuel cell itself, in which hydrogen is split into protons and electrons, creating electricity and only water as a by-product, is fearsomely expensive as there’s currently no way of mass-producing it; they are all hand-made. Honda reckons both problems should be cracked by 2020, but that there’s a 20 percent chance we won’t have resolved the technical problems even then.
So how does it work?
That full rear end is designed to accommodate the large and heavily reinforced hydrogen tank but also leave a decent boot and rear seat space. It feeds a new-design vertical fuel cell stack between the front seats which now weighs just a third as much as Honda’s last effort; it has been making them since 1999, don't forget. The electricity the cell produces turns an electric motor in the nose and two small in-wheel motors in the rears; all the motors are tiny, allowing that dainty nose. But the FCX is also a hybrid; regenerative braking captures the energy that would otherwise be lost and uses it to charge an expensive but lightweight lithium-ion battery, as used in the Tesla Roadster and your laptop. This gives the FCX its impressive range. Only pure water comes from the tailpipe.
And how does it drive?
In some respects like a normal car, which is good news. The AC electric motors deliver their torque instantly, making the FCX feel quicker than its 10-second 0-60mph time. There’s strong grip, meaty and direct steering and tight body control; this is no concept-special but a car plainly designed to be driven. But like other fuel-cell or electric vehicles it’s eerily silent; with only the occasional sigh from the electric motor up front, and a gurgle from the fuel cell beside you as it clears itself of water. It takes some getting used to.
And the cabin?
Like stepping into a very stylish future. The seats are trimmed in Honda’s (appropriately) pale green BioFabric, which is sun-and stain-resistant, produced in a sustainable manner and way cooler than leather. In front of you, a wide glass screen conceals the sat-nav and the main ‘powerball’ dial, which grows or shrinks to indicate your power output, and changes colour to show if you’re burning or regenerating energy. Mad-looking, but it works.
We’re still a long way from a hydrogen economy, and further still from being able to mass-produce fuel cells affordably. Other technologies – battery electric in particular – might well establish themselves before fuel cells have a chance to. But Honda deserves credit for investing so heavily in an ‘out-there’ technology that might just save us, and for showing us that the future of driving might not be so grim after all. It has good reason to, of course; as the world’s largest maker of engines it needs to find something to replace them. If by 2020 it’s churning these things out instead, it won’t be a tragedy.