Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tomorrowland: We Drive Honda’s New Fuel-Cell Vehicle


Visiting Japan from the United States means crossing the International Date Line—quite literally traveling into the future. This was not lost on us when we visited Honda’s research and development center in Tochigi in advance of the Tokyo Motor Show for an extremely limited drive of its third-generation fuel-cell vehicle, heretofore known by the inventive FCV name.

President and CEO Takahiro Hachigo described the FCV as Honda’s “ultimate technology,” although we will note that the company had two Acura NSX prototypes present and available for joyrides, as well.

While full details and specifications on the new car were not shared, from the outset it is apparent that this FCV is essentially an evolution of the last one, the FCX Clarity. At 192.7 inches, it is a little longer than its predecessor, although we were told its wheelbase is a bit shorter. The new car, which we assume will also use the Clarity name in some way, also is slightly wider and taller than the FCX Clarity but is still in the same dimensional ballpark as the Honda Accord. Unlike the older model, the new one can now seat three across in the rear, making it a true five-passenger sedan.


This is accomplished by moving the fuel cell itself under the hood. Honda has managed to both improve the power density of the fuel cell—from 2.0 kW/L to 3.1 kW/L—and shrink its physical size by a third. By rotating the power drive unit so that it is lying on its side, the fuel cell can now squeeze in on top. Looking under the hood, the entire package is about the size of a V-6 engine. It nestles in a hollow aluminum subframe, die-cast using technology adapted from Honda’s motorcycle division. A lithium-ion battery pack of unspecified size sits underneath the front seat and two hydrogen tanks occupy space under the rear seat and in the trunk. Cargo capacity takes a hit due to the larger of the tanks, but not as much as before. Power has improved, from 134 horsepower to 174, which should allow the new Clarity to do zero to 60 mph in less than 9.0 seconds. Range is also said to increase, by roughly 13 percent, which would mean the new car could deliver 260 miles per fill-up; Honda promises to reveal this number plus additional secrets at the L.A. auto show next month.

The Briefest of Impressions

Our time behind the wheel was measured in minutes—that could have been counted on one hand—but we can confirm both Honda’s promise of a quicker Clarity as well as improvements to NVH. In every respect, this new car seems even more like an Accord, from the corporate steering wheel to the infotainment touch screen to the refined interior. The Clarity is not, however, based on the current or next-generation Accord, but rather a separate platform that will be shared with a dedicated plug-in-hybrid successor to the discontinued Accord plug-in, which is to be introduced in a year or two. Honda says this new PHEV should have three times the Accord plug-in’s electric driving range, which would work out to about 42 miles, although the battery will only double in size.

Sharing a platform in this fashion should allow Honda to better scale up the Clarity, and indeed, company representatives say they have “broader market plans” for the new version, bolstered by Honda’s $13.8-million investment in hydrogen fueling infrastructure in California. As strategies go, this seems relatively obvious given the scarcity of the old FCX Clarity, which was only leased to a carefully curated list of well-heeled Southern Californians. Archrival Toyota’s ambitious new Mirai fuel-cell car no doubt provides additional motivation, although Honda would not say whether it would join Toyota in selling—as opposed to strictly leasing—its new fuel-cell car when it comes to market in the Golden State next spring.



If there is reason to find fault with this new Honda as a car, it is that it still adheres to the same old automotive paradigm. Honda engineers continue to emphasize a goal of transparency to the customer coming from traditional vehicles, yet what Elon Musk’s cult of owners have found is that driving an electric can in some ways trump the experience delivered by internal-combustion engines. We count ourselves as big fans of the “one-foot” driving experience that the Tesla Model S uniquely provides, with high levels of regenerative braking not found in the Honda. Honda prefers to use a blended regenerative-braking system that characteristically distorts feedback through the pedal, an effect present to some extent in every car we’ve encountered that uses regenerative braking, yet allows the car to coast when the accelerator pedal is released. Regenerative braking, notably, is absent in the Tesla, which allows the friction brakes to just be brakes.

The larger problem, of course, has nothing to do with the new FCV itself. Honda’s presentation came with the same caveats that always accompany talk of the hydrogen future: infrastructure still needs to be built and mass production is needed to reduce costs. Clearly Honda has some plans to address these issues, although it still promises widespread deployment only 10 years from now. Forgive us for experiencing déjà vu to when we were first handed the keys to the FCX Clarity nearly a decade ago. Remarkably, you could have said the same things then about battery-electric vehicles—and carmakers did. But then Tesla went ahead and started building an infrastructure and forged ahead with mass production. So have other carmakers. Indeed, the world of electrified automobiles—and remember, fuel-cell cars also are electrics—has evolved dramatically in the last eight years. Honda’s contribution, not nearly so much.



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