Honda Motor Co., Ltd. president and CEO Takeo Fukui takes some of the initial FCX Clarity customers for a quick drive during a ceremony at the world's first dedicated fuel cell vehicle manufacturing facility, located in Tochigi, Japan.
Talk about timing. Honda's rollout of its first hydrogen fuel cell car couldn't have come at a better time. Introducing a vehicle that basically runs on water instead of gasoline quite predictably caught the world's attention.
But these cars, called Fuel Cell Vehicles, or FCVs, are highly complex, and to say they run on water greatly oversimplifies the subject and, understandably, has already led to some consumer confusion.
FCVs are actually electric cars, running on a set of super-strong batteries. But unlike normal batteries that have to be plugged in to be recharged, FCVs use a hydrogen-based fuel that constantly recharges them. So, far from running on water, these engines require a hydrogen-mix fuel, which combined with oxygen from the air, create a chemical process that powers the batteries.
The first FCVs are very, very expensive in the price range of an Italian sports car. And since you can't just fill the tank with water, fueling stations have to begin providing the hydrogen fuel mix, so that motorists can confidently drive from one point to another, knowing they will be able to fill up when they need to.
But even with those problems, petroleum-dependent motorists have reason for excitement. Here is a vehicle that doesn't require oil to operate. While it doesn't run on water, its hydrogen fuel is made from water. There are no carbon emissions, only water vapor.
Before most consumers can trade in their hybrid for a FCV, a lot more research and development must take place. The biggest task is to reduce the cost and improve performance. Being able to mass produce the cars will likely bring down the cost, but it will remain an expensive technology for quite some time.
But Honda has not been alone in developing its FCV. Other automakers, along with governments, fuel cell developers, and component suppliers, have been working to make FCVs cheaper and more practical.
In 2003, President Bush announced a program called the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative during his State of the Union Address. The initiative, supported by legislation in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Advanced Energy Initiative of 2006, aims to develop hydrogen, fuel cell and infrastructure technologies to make fuel-cell vehicles practical and cost-effective by 2020. The United States has dedicated more than one billion dollars to fuel cell research and development so far, according to DOE.
The Japanese government has also been highly supportive of this effort, and Honda researchers have beat everyone out of the gate. Its FCX Clarity fuel-cell car goes on lease in California this year, but for all practical purposes, it will be a plaything for the rich and famous.
Honda says its Clarity will have a range of 270 miles between refueling, a top speed of 100 miles per hour, and be able to go from 0-60 in ten seconds. While that sounds good, Honda says it plans to only turn out 300 of the cars in the next three years.
With the publicity and excitement surrounding the FCV, scammers are already seeking to cash in. A Google search of "hydrogen fuel cell" produces dozens of sponsored links to Web sites that promise "Yes, you CAN run your car on water," and offer to sell "conversion" kits.
It goes without saying, no such kits exist.