The Car of the Future… (?)

2009 Honda FCX Clarity

2009 Honda FCX Clarity

As we venture boldly into the 21st Century, the question of how we’ll all get around when the oil supplies eventually run dry (whenever that may be – it could be another hundred years or so by some estimates) keeps coming up.
Honda has one potential answer to that question, and it’s available in limited numbers right now. The car is called the FCX Clarity and it runs on compressed hydrogen gas. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to lease one for three years and move smartly about Southern California in a pollution-free aura of non-carbon driving. But there are a lot of “ifs” attached to that scenario.
 First of all, Honda is only planning to put about 200 or so examples of the Clarity into service. Considering how many cars are sold in the greater Los Angeles area each year, even in a dismal economy, that’s a miniscule amount. By the time the last leases have commenced, even exotic car brands like Ferrari and Rolls-Royce will handily outnumber the Clarity.
 Secondly, if you’re just now hearing about this car, the chances are good you’re out of luck. Members of the alternative fuel community have been burning up their keyboards at a feverish pace blogging and message-boarding (and probably pestering Honda) about where they might be on the delivery schedule for the Clarity. It’s not a completely foregone conclusion, but you’d probably be at the end of a waiting list at least 500 long for the 200 cars.
Finally, you have to qualify to drive one. Not just financially, but you must live within reasonable proximity of one of the few hydrogen fueling stations that can fill the Clarity’s 4kg storage tank. The most convenient one is located in West Los Angeles at an otherwise conventional Shell station, not surprisingly within coasting distance of Santa Monica and Venice, where people who are both well-moneyed and earth-conscious tend to reside.
 Nevertheless, Honda wants to spread the word about this amazing new car, so I got to spend a full work week behind the wheel of the high-tech pollution fighter. The Clarity is about a half-size bigger than Honda’s Civic, and is a fully-functional four door sedan with ample room for four adults. Part of the evolution of their fuel cell vehicles (they’ve been building smaller test cars for a while) is that this one can easily take the place of a conventional sedan used in urban settings.
 This is a genuine production vehicle, built at a dedicated factory in Japan. It was designed from the ground up to be a hydrogen fuel cell car – not converted from some other design. Essentially, the Clarity is an electric car. But unlike one that needs rechargeable batteries to power its motor, it makes its own power internally. Hydrogen is filtered down through the fuel cell (a “stack” of polymer membranes that extract electricity), and the fuel cell sends juice to the motor. There’s also a battery on board, much like a hybrid car, in order to provide a power boost when needed.
 So, hydrogen goes in, and the only thing that comes out is some water vapor. The whole energy chain is a lot more complicated than that, and a raging debate about the viability of using hydrogen for transportation is only a Google search away on the Internet. But for now, a relative handful of drivers are using hydrogen to move about our road system.
 One thing I can tell you is that the Honda Clarity is an awesome piece of machinery. After turning the ignition key and pushing a button labeled “Power,” a bunch of whirring and clicking occurs, a futuristic instrument display flashes up and down like a big circular vu meter, and then the message “ready to drive” appears right before your eyes. An odd selector mechanism is then slotted into gear, and with a quiet whoosh, you’re off.
 Other than the eerie silence of the power system, the Clarity drives like pretty much like a regular vehicle. It accelerates, steers and stops quite conventionally, and all the typical creature comforts are right at your fingertips. Climate control, satellite radio, power-actuated windows, locks and mirrors, and so on. Honda went to great effort to make it as easy to drive any other car you’d find in the showroom. But it’s also completely different, especially when you realize that you’re zipping along with freeway traffic with a science project of energy conversion going on beneath you.
 In a nutshell, I really love this car. Range is anywhere from 200 to 270 miles, depending on how much city or freeway driving you do. I did a mix of conditions and refueled it when the instrument cluster told me I was 60 miles from running out (after having gone about 140 or so). At that, the Clarity only needed a little more than 2kg of hydrogen from the West L.A. Shell station to fill the tank. The fuel gauge and range estimator are overly cautious, so the 270 mile range certainly seems doable.
 Honda doesn’t put a price tag on the FCX Clarity, but if you had to buy it for what it cost them to build, you could probably have a new Ferrari and a new Rolls-Royce for the same money. Fortunately, Honda is subsidizing the car right now as a sort of research project, so the monthly lease price is $600.
I can’t recommend this car enough. But if you’d like to have one, well, all I can say is, good luck. You’ll need to be one of the 200 chosen few.
I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.

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