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LA Auto Show: Are Fuel Cells Getting Closer to Reality? Honda Will Start Limited Lease Program in 2008

By John
November 14, 2007

The super-fast Nissan GT-R and the hulking hybridized Cadillac Escalade SUV captured a lot of media attention on Day One of the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show’s press preview Wednesday, but the real news was in the quiet hum of two electric motors.

One of them powered the new FCX Clarity, Honda Motor Co.’s ready-for-production fuel-cell sedan, the other an artfully mud-spattered 2006 Toyota Highlander with the company’s third-generation fuel-cell power plant.

Both showed that fuel-cell technology may be a lot closer to retail readiness than we might think. Honda, in fact, says that as far as it is concerned, the system on the Clarity – the name “speaks to Honda’s clear vision for the future,” said American Honda President Tetsuo Iwamura – is ready for prime time.

The new system delivers fuel economy equivalent to 68 mpg in a gasoline burner, a 20 percent increase from the present-generation system; has 270 miles of range on a 3.9 kilogram tank of hydrogen (about the same as 4 gallons of gas), a 30 percent improvement; and is 45 percent smaller and 400 pounds lighter.

The size and weight reduction made it possible for Honda to package the system in a nicely sculpted five-passenger sedan while competitors’ larger fuel cell systems still require van and SUV bodies. It can operate in Death Valley, or at temperatures as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same hot-cold range as a modern gasoline engine.

The only issues left to be resolved, said Honda spokesman Sage Marie, “are cost and infrastructure.”

Those are big issues, though.

Cost reduction, and Honda reportedly has slashed the $1 million cost of the previous generation fuel-cell system by 50 percent, will come with increased production volume.

And volume depends on demand, which won’t happen until people can be assured that there is enough hydrogen fuel, and enough fuel stations, so that they can pack up, toss the kids into the backseat and head off on a cross-country trip without worrying about being stranded in Weedpatch with an empty hydrogen tank.

In other words, no matter how good the automotive part of fuel-cell technology gets, it won’t go anywhere unless, or until, the fuel industry — or an entrepreneurial visionary with lots of cash — gets on the ball and starts building hydrogen refineries and fueling stations. If that happens, and if the hydrogen can be produced with electrical power from solar, wind or hydro sources, Honda, at least, could have clean-running, fuel-cell electric vehicles ready to roll.

In fact, Honda is beginning a limited leasing program test in Southern California next summer: Select customers who live near existing hydrogen fuel stations in Santa Monica, Torrance and Irvine will be able to lease an FCX Clarity for three years for $600 a month.

The company isn’t signing leases yet, and says it will use feedback from consumers who visit the auto show to help determine the level of consumer interest.

Honda won’t say how many of the new fuel-cell cars it will build, but scuttlebutt is that the number will be somewhere between 100 and 200. It’s unlikely there would be more because the cars are still largely handmade and packed with incredibly expensive technology.

Unlike market-ready Honda, Toyota says there’s still development work to do on its fuel-cell system. But it’s a pretty impressive setup nonetheless.

The company sneaked it into the LA show as a warm-up act before the unveiling of the 2008 Sequoia SUV to boast about a recent 2,300-mile drive from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Vancouver, British Columbia.

The road can be pretty rugged at times, and Toyota had to bring its own hydrogen fuel (there’s that fueling infrastructure issue again) in a pair of big rigs that preceded the fuel-cell vehicle, but the seven-day drive went off without a hitch, Carter said.

Nothing broke, shook loose or failed to work on any part of the fuel-cell stack, the electric motor, the hydrogen fuel system or the complex power management electronics.

Average fuel economy on the trip was the equivalent of nearly 70 miles per gallon.

“This is how Toyota goes about its business of advanced technology development,” Carter said, adding that while others (Honda, perchance?) are pushing to put fuel cell vehicles into daily use, Toyota believes it is more important “to be best in the market than to be first to market.” The company had an ulterior motive for its unscheduled fuel-cell show.

Toyota’s been getting bashed a lot lately for talking green while favoring size and power over fuel economy in a steady stream of new vehicles.

From the new Corolla and Scion xB to the redesigned Tundra pickup and the Sequoia, the newest Toyotas are heftier than the originals (although, critics should note, the Sequoia, despite a 600-pound weight gain and an engine that provides 100 more horsepower, delivers a 12 percent, or 2 miles per gallon, improvement in fuel economy over the ’07 model).

Boasting about the hydrogen fuel-cell development program may have helped Toyota take the sting out of some of the criticism.

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