Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Test driving the Honda Clarity

Hydrogen powered/energy stored vehicles, commonly called fuel cell vehicle, FCV are an interesting idea. We set out to drive a Honda Clarity and met with an owner. What happened next was an interesting mix of surprises and more questions that only time will answer.

The gist is that if you can step aside the passionate debate as to whether to use batteries to store energy or hydrogen as a medium, the real point at stake is the future of the electric drive. While batteries are pushing the performance envelop at breakneck speed, hydrogen is continuing to mature. Hence, when Honda decided to build a Clarity fuel cell vehicle, FCV concept, many wondered if it was just another PR trick. Other car makers, such as BMW have used a different approach, mainly that of burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, ICE.

Driving On Hydrogen. Stepping into the Clarity, you understand why Honda chose the name "clarity". You have a sense of 380 degree vision inside it. It is a modern car, and in many ways hints as to how future sedans will look like. It is spacious, mostly due to the inherent infrastructure of the electric vehicles, EVs design with the little space the motor takes in the front hood. Modern amenities abound, such as air conditioned seats and collision detection radars.

The Sound Experience. Starting the car is an EV experience. Nothing happen, short of faint noise of the hydrogen pump kicking in and the dash indicating the consumption state. On the right side of the dashboard, you have the blue hydrogen level, on the other the green battery's and in the middle how much hydrogen is used. You can gauge it by viewing a small blue dot that gets bigger and turns green as you accelerate. The accelerations were frank and the only thing you could hear with the high pitch sound of the electric motor, synonymous to torquey. The regenerative braking was smooth, as you would expect from a modern sedan. It is above all a sedan and acts accordingly.

Technically Speaking. The AC electric motor drives the front wheels and is rated at 100 kW, or 134HP, with a 189 ft-lb torque which is plenty for a car like that. Why is 134 hp enough? An electric motor delivers 100% of its torque as soon as it spins and the horsepower curve comes in much sooner than with an ICE. It uses a lithium-ion pack rated at 288V kept full by a fuel cell stack rated at 100 kW, that rests between the driver and passenger. The hydrogen tank is located in the trunk and packs 5,000 psi. And this is where Honda has innovated compared to other manufacturers using 10,000 psi tanks. According to the company, the performance gain are nullified with anything higher than 5,000 psi. The turn radius is above most modern gas cars and the Honda Clarity handles very well. It's range is only 280 miles which makes it a great city car and an average long distance traveler. In this aspect, it is on par with the best pure electric vehicles, EVs out there. Fueling up the car felt like a CNG process, except much quicker. It took about 5mn to fill the tank.

Final Thoughts. Honda has clearly put a lot of thought and engineering into its Clarity. From its Eco-friendly material to modern amenities, what impressed us most was the space inside an EV. As much as hydrogen is intriguing, there are still many roadblocks the community is working on. For instance, Hydrogen is still slightly cheaper than gasoline and in this aspect, electricity is cheaper. Water is a precious commodity now days and using it to make hydrogen is something that needs to be handled without detriment to the environment. Another point often brought to the table is that fuel stacks rely on platinum, which is a rare and expensive commodity. Research is happening to bypass using platinum.

Lastly, the debate is still out as to whether using batteries to power electric car or fuel cells to conduct energy is the best way. The advantages at this moment seems to be tipped toward pure electricity, since the infrastructure is already in place and it is cheaper to operate and construct. When the hydrogen community resolve these three issues, diverting water for hydrogen, using platinum and cost effectively building stations and FCVs , it will be a brilliant alternative. The next few years will be fascinating as car makers are betting on one technology or the other. Unfortunately, at this stage the debate is still too emotional and the only experts we need to listen to are the ones who are in the middle of the road, neither for or against but working on solutions.

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