Honda FCX: Ride pollution-free
WASHINGTON — That hydrogen-power future the dreamers talk about? You can glimpse it here.
Dash about in your hydrogen-power automobile and refuel at an otherwise ordinary Shell gasoline station in a gritty commercial area near the U.S. Capitol.
You have to call ahead, though, to be sure a hydrogen-savvy attendant is available. Or you have to have undergone the training Shell thinks you need to safely connect two hoses to your hydrogen car. One tells the gas station pump how much hydrogen will fit into the car's tanks, among other data, and the other hose delivers hydrogen gas after being locked onto the car's receptacle.
If hydrogen leaks into the air, it dissipates fast, so isn't as fire- and explosion-prone as gasoline, which pools and concentrates.
Hydrogen-car fleets are operated here by some automakers to demonstrate to Congress and others how simple it all would be if only the U.S. would invest a bit more in the hydrogen vision. The Shell station began selling hydrogen at one of its islands Nov. 14, 2004.
The test vehicle, a Honda FCX, is a small, front-wheel-drive, electric car. Electricity comes from the hydrogen fuel cell. The test car was No. 20, the most recently built U.S.-market FCX.
Hydrogen stored in tanks under the car is passed through membranes in what's called the stack near the back of the car, where an electro-chemical reaction creates electricity for the motor up front. Water is the waste product.
Surplus electricity is stored in a batterylike capacitor. It's available to boost the engine power when the stack's not putting out much.
It took just three minutes, and cost $14.08, or $5.60 per kilogram, for about 2.5 kilograms needed to top off the test vehicle's 3.75 kg tanks. FCX can go 190 miles in highway driving on a full tank, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Instruments in the test car suggested a range of 120 miles in typical D.C. and suburban traffic.
Honda and Shell say a kilogram of hydrogen is the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas. The 190-mile range is the equivalent of 51 mpg in a gasoline car. A range of 120 miles equals 32 mpg.
Not the infinite mileage of dreams, but every one of those miles is pollution-free (unless you consider water vapor a pollutant). California's Air Resources Board lists the FCX as a zero-emission vehicle.
General Motors, Ford Motor, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, BMW, Hyundai and others also have a few fuel-cell machines in regular service to see if they do well.
Beyond the novelty of having hydrogen fuel semi-available in a normal gas station, what makes FCX a stunner is that it isn't. That is, it's a lot like any good small car. Same features, same room, same comfort and refinement for the most part. You have to wait for the fuel cell to go through a self-check each time you start the car, but that takes only 8 seconds — same as it takes to close the driver's door, buckle the safety belt and release the parking brake.
There's no power plant noise when you start the car because there's nothing revving. The electric motor is sitting there idle, waiting for you to stab the throttle and go. When you do, it definitely does. Up to about 30 mph when acceleration tapers off. After that, FCX makes haste slowly. Merging onto a fast-paced freeway is a challenge.
The motor whines loudly when accelerating, a flaw that could be corrected easily if such cars went into mass production.
The car whirred and chuffed after shut-off, as if you left something running. That's the noise of the fuel cell purging itself of water.
A gauge similar in appearance to a tachometer tells how much power the fuel cell is putting out, how much is coming from the capacitor, how much is left in the capacitor and how much you're recharging the capacitor via regenerative braking, as used on gas-electric hybrids.
That's distracting. If it's going fine, what do you care? Cautious types would note that you might care because injudicious use could drain the capacitor, leaving just the fuel cell's output. That limits power, but the capacitor refills fast.
Parts fit pretty well, and overall refinement was fairly high. You wouldn't hop into an FCX and say it was obviously an experimental vehicle. You'd compare it with an ordinary small car, and it would come out handsomely in the comparison.
Honda considers the FCX a premium small car, so it comes with a navigation system. The test car has the latest navigation feature, a list of hydrogen filling stations. The next nearest to the one in Washington, it said, was more than 100 miles away in Pennsylvania. Others listed were 300-plus miles distant in New York, used by government-leased FCXs there.
Honda counts 25 hydrogen stations in the USA, 16 of those in California. A coast-to-coast fuel network is not quite handy.
Because of the water involved in a fuel cell's energy conversion process, it's hard to get a fuel cell to work below freezing temperatures. Honda claims its proprietary process makes the FCX operable down to minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit, and all the way up to 203 degrees, should the navigation system misdirect you part way to Hades.
It costs about $1.5 million to build an FCX, so Honda doesn't sell them. To accumulate real-world miles, it leases them for a token $500 a month to Honda-picked governments, colleges and, so far, one family. The first two in the USA were delivered to the city of Los Angeles in 2002.
Honda's FCX is a sign that there's hope for a fuel-cell future. But without a lot more development and investment to lower costs and make hydrogen readily available, it's a faint one.
•What is it? Small, front-drive car powered by an electric motor that gets its electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell. Manufactured at a rate of about one a month in Japan and leased mainly to organizations in the USA and Japan to roll up real-world test miles.
Honda considers it a routine production car and reports sales every month.
•How soon? Trickling in since 2002, when Los Angeles got the first two for daily use by government workers.
•How much? The cars cost Honda about $1.5 million to build and are leased for $500 a month.
•How many? So far, 20 in the USA, six in Japan.
•What's the drivetrain? Electric motor rated 80 kilowatts (about 107 horsepower) and 272 Newton-meters (about 201 pounds-feet) of torque; single-speed, direct-drive transmission; traction control.
•What's the safety gear? Front air bags, anti-lock brakes. Side air bags and stability control aren't available.
•What's the rest? Automatic climate control; navigation system; power steering, brakes, windows, mirrors; AM/FM/MP3-compatible stereo.
•How big? A foot shorter, 8 inches taller, 1,000 pounds heavier than a Honda Civic. FCX is 163.9 inches long, 69.3 inches wide, 64.7 inches tall on a 99.6-inch wheelbase. Weight is listed as 3,674 pounds. Seats four comfortably.
•How thirsty? Honda says about 51 miles on the hydrogen energy-equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. More typical: 32 miles per gallon-equivalent. Shell's hydrogen filling station in Washington, D.C., charges $5.60 for the energy-equivalent of one gallon of gasoline, making hydrogen twice as expensive as premium gasoline.
•How fast? Honda says 93 mph, flat out. Quick from standstill to about 30 mph, sluggish from there to higher speeds.
•Overall: Tantalizingly real, except for nettlesome details such as the seven-figure cost and the lack of filling stations.