The most remarkable thing about driving Honda's FCX Clarity prototype isn't how it emits nothing but water, its torquey, 13,500 rpm electric motor, the hydrogen equivalent of 68 miles per gallon or the perverse pleasure that goes with driving a multimillion-dollar automobile. It's the air-conditioned seats. Notice I said driving, because other than the whirring buzz of the motor, the Clarity goes, brakes and turns just like any other car. I had to keep reminding myself I was indeed behind the wheel of a hydrogen fuel-cell powered feat of engineering. Frankly, the Clarity feels like a slightly larger Accord. Again, Honda's latest FCX uses no gasoline whatsoever and behaves just like — no, make that exactly like — a regular car. And those AC seats? They have built-in fans to blow thermoelectrically cooled air, so no ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons are needed to chill your fat butt. Pretty neat.
The technology behind the Clarity is basically a flashback to tenth-grade chemistry. Tank-stored gaseous hydrogen is pumped into the "stack," which consists of layer upon layer of fuel cells. Inside each cell, hydrogen gas reacts with a hydrogen electrode, causing a catalytic reaction that ionizes the hydrogen atom (electricity is of course nothing but flowing electrons). The electron-less atom (ion) next bonds with oxygen to create water, which recirculates through the stack to keep the electrolytic membranes damp, before exiting the vehicle through the tail pipe. In turn, the fuel cell stack powers an electric motor, which drives the front wheels. There is also an auxiliary lithium ion battery to store extra juice created by the stack, the motor (which behaves like a generator when decelerating) and additional energy gathered from the regenerative braking system. The battery is used during start-up or to assist the engine if the demands of the right foot exceed the power output of the stack. See? Piece of sugar-free cake.
As intense and complicated as all that sounds, you'd never suspect the FCX Clarity was anything but a run-of-the-mill Honda. While some have complained that it looks like a Hondaized Prius, the Clarity is so large as to mitigate that comparison. I maintain it looks like an elongated Accord with Infiniti G Coupe haunches, a chopped front end and a chrome new-gen Volkswagen beard. Sure, it's a little longer than the Hondas we're used to, but that's the price paid for having a fuel tank that can store enough hydrogen for a 270-mile journey while ensuring plenty of back seat legroom and a real trunk. The Clarity is also a bit wider than most Japanese mid-size family sedans because the stack is nestled between the front seats. Hey, you have plenty of elbow room.
The interior is extremely comfortable, nearly luxurious and made from all sorts of high-tech green materials, like corn. The instrument panel is similar to the current Civic but manages to crank up the Fisher-Price-meets-Buck-Rogers chic. For example, a small blue circle appears in the center of the digital dash when the Clarity is "idling." During acceleration the ball grows larger and turns green. Really stand on the go pedal and the ball morphs into a glowing-orange sun. The backseats are especially spacious. There's plenty of legroom, and the door panels are scooped out, giving the back compartment a circular feel.
Our drive started at the ritzy Fairmont Mira Mar Hotel on Ocean Drive in Santa Monica, where Autoblog Sam turned north onto Pacific Coast Highway and wound his way through Malibu and that city's recently charred canyons. I looped us back. While dealing with stop-and-go traffic in Malibu, we were surrounded on all sides by Hybrids. Every fifth car seemed to be a Prius. At one point we even found ourselves behind a Ford Escape Hybrid with a license plate that read, "NO HUMMR." I was reminded of Star Trek IV when Kirk and the boyz warp back to the year 1986 and Bones finds a woman hooked up to a kidney dialysis machine. He feeds her some pills made from super futuristic technology, unhooks her from the apparatus and declares the then contemporary state of medicine, "Barbaric." All around us people were driving vehicles that in their minds are atop the environmental food chain. Yet they're still emitting loads of dirty old carbon dioxide (and whatever else) into the atmosphere derived from a tank full of Middle Eastern crude. Meanwhile we're zooming past all of 'em, dripping only water while nestled comfortably behind the wheel of the future.
Naysayers, Ron Paultards, the blindly patriotic and those not convinced that human activity is cooking our globe will all roll their eyes and dismiss the FCX Clarity as nothing but vaporware. A passing fad. A cynical gesture by Honda aimed at appeasing "environmental nazis," CAFE standards and nothing else. All that's fine, as people said similar things about Henry Ford's Model T. But even if you hate Al Gore and despise Ed Begley Jr., there's no way $100 for a barrel of oil (up from under $60 one year ago) makes you happy. Something has to give, and give in a big way.
Ford Model T
Coincidently, 2008 marks 100 years since Ford put America on wheels by rolling out the Model T. It's also the year Honda will begin leasing FCX Clarity models (and their home-based, natural gas powered hydrogen refueling stations) to select customers around Southern California and in Japan. Yes, the natural gas emits CO2, but only half as much as petroleum. More important, tank-to-wheel energy efficiency is more than double that of Honda's existing hybrids, and three times that of their small internal combustion cars like the Fit. And remember, if the hydrogen is created using green energy — solar, wind, geo-thermal, hydro or atomic — there are no greenhouse emissions whatsoever.
At this point you probably want to know how fast the FCX Clarity accelerates, its top speed and how many Gs it pulls around corners. Well, Honda didn't bother to say much about the Clarity's performance other than it's comparable to a "2.4-liter internal combustion vehicle of similar size." So, we have to guesstimate. As the 100 kW (136 hp) electric motor creates 189 ft-lb of torque from zero rpm, zero-to-60 times are most likely in the low seven-second range. Never forget that Americans buy horsepower and drive torque. Top speed is limited to 100 mph. Much more impressive is how effortlessly the Clarity cruises. At one point the speedo indicated 53 mph and I was convinced I'd accidentally switched the display to metric. A moment later we passed one of those police "your speed is" contraptions that indicated 53 good old American miles per hour. The ride, helped out by the long wheelbase, is outstanding. The Clarity weighs in at 3582 lbs. A four-cylinder Accord weighs 3,433 lbs. and the V6 model weighs 3600 lbs. Going around a corner, you'd be hard pressed to detect a difference between the three. But performance is hardly the point.
Honda FCX Engineers and their Baby
Every year I go to New York to watch the Packers play the Vikings. We watch the game at your typical sports bar with a dozen or so TVs hanging from the walls. One year a Giants or Jets game finished up early and the local station switched over to the Green Bay/Minnesota game we had until then been watching on Satellite. However, the local channel's feed was about ten seconds ahead of the satellite. "Turn it off! Turn it off!" one of the more colorful patrons began screaming, "Turn that fuckin' TV off!" We tried to reason with him, explaining that it doesn't matter if one feed is ten seconds in front of the other. "No way man," he shot back, "That's the future!"
Climbing out of the FCX Clarity and back into my own car, I couldn't help but feel the same. Sitting in the world's most heinous traffic surrounded by millions of my fellow Angelenos all burning countless zillion gallons of gasoline, how on earth is all this going to change? Where's the hydrogen infrastructure going to come from, if it comes at all? I don't know. Honda is going to stick a few refueling stations in and around Los Angeles along an already existing hydrogen pipeline (common in industrialized areas) but obviously that's not enough. Their home energy station is pretty damn useless if you live in an apartment. And the $600 per month lease is no friend to most of us. Honda (and Ford and Toyota and GM and every manufacturer investing in fuel cell technology) has a real chicken-and-egg situation on their hands. Fortunately the Honda FCX Clarity is one hell of a chicken.