Cars that Defied the Norm: Honda FCX Clarity

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Through the use of hydrogen fuel, Honda has made an electric car which is as usable as a regular car. That doesn't mean it's ready, however, to replace the conventional automobile as we know it.

It might puzzle some readers why a hydrogen car would be included here but not any battery electric vehicles. The answer is that battery EVs aren't fully evolved cars yet. They're niche commuter vehicles which can't yet be used in all of the ways we use normal vehicles. Hydrogen vehicles aren't ready for prime time either, but here the problem is the inefficiency of manufacturing and distributing the fuel. The vehicle itself is a finished product.

Honda's first "production" Clarity rolled off the line in 2008. Like the Turbine Car which appeared earlier in this series, this wasn't an actual production car as such. The Clarity is a research vehicle which is leased to select members of the public as a means of gathering data on how practical the vehicle is in real-world situations. Honda loses a tremendous amount of money on each vehicle, and at least at the beginning of the Clarity program, sales to the general public were cost-prohibitive. It's said that as recently as 2005, a fuel-cell vehicle would cost Honda as much as $1 million to produce.

The cost has come down, but is likely still over $100,000 and that is quite a lot to ask someone to pay for what is essentially a slightly bigger Accord. The Clarity is a simple enough idea, it converts tank-stored hydrogen into electricity via a stack of fuel cells and uses this to power and an electric motor which drives the wheels. The motor produces 134 horsepower and provides smooth, albeit not especially urgent acceleration. Assuming you're one of the very small number of people Honda has decided to lease to, it will cost you $600 per month. The IRS has determined that the Clarity is eligible for a $12,000 tax credit, but since you can't actually buy one, this remains irrelevant.

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Hydrogen is sold by the kilogram, rather than by the gallon, and it costs slightly more for a kilogram than a gallon of gasoline. But since the Clarity will get a combined 60 miles on one kilogram of hydrogen, this pretty much balances out. It looks pretty normal for a Japanese sedan, in fact, some people have been said to be disappointed by just how normal it looks. It also drives pretty much like any other car, but unlike a battery electric, it can be refilled from a pump and driven for several hundred miles before needing a refill. This brings us, once more, to the subject of politics in the automotive world.

Proponents of battery electric vehicles hate hydrogen vehicles, absolutely hate them. Because a hydrogen car is so much more usable than a battery EV, they have at times received more attention from manufacturers. The manufacturing and distribution of hydrogen fuel remains incredibly and impractically inefficient in terms of the amount of energy needed to power the vehicle, but from the point of view of a manufacturer and what is within its control, a hydrogen car makes much more sense as a consumer product. But that didn't stop the conspiracy theorists from howling that the promise of hydrogen cars was simply being used to distract the public from demanding battery electric cars.

Of course, automakers still built electric cars for the mass market, people haven't bought them in huge numbers and automakers have continued right on working on hydrogen. This means that this was either the worst conspiracy in history, or these people are full of it, but the presence of actual facts has never discouraged a good conspiracy theory. So perhaps you've heard that hydrogen is a pipe dream, but this brings us to the central point of the Clarity. Honda doesn't know how our energy needs will be met in the future, and neither does anybody else.

The current manufacturing techniques for hydrogen make full-scale implementation impossible, but in that way it is absolutely no different from any other alternative energy. Biofuel has its own problems blocking it from larger implementation and the usability problems of battery cars make them something of a joke. A massive breakthrough is needed by each of these before it could conceivably replace gasoline, and for anyone to think that this is possible with one technology and not another is absurd. In researching hydrogen and building the Clarity, Honda is hedging its bets in the event that hydrogen takes off in a big way. Because, like the rest of us, it simply doesn't know.

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