It’s a bright, warm Southern California afternoon and I’m driving north on the I-405 from Irvine to Torrance, in the carpool lane at 80-plus miles per hour, in an electric car which makes its own electricity.
Let that sink in for a second.
Last Tuesday I was given the opportunity to pilot a Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen-fueled fuel cell EV, which the company is leasing to a few select SoCal drivers. I drove from UC Irvine about 30 miles to Torrance City Hall (just down the street from American Honda’s 100-acre national headquarters campus).
This was the first day of the Hydrogen Road Tour ‘09, sponsored by the Air Resources Board and several other public and private groups. The tour traveled from Chula Vista to Vancouver, BC, about 1,700 miles, with 28 stops along the way to allow the public to “ooh” and “aah” (it was in Santa Monica last Wednesday).
Besides Honda, there were fuel cell EVs from six other car-makers: GM, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Kia, Nissan and Toyota. And they all made it from Point A to B during my section of the drive with no need for a chase truck to flatbed them in at the end of the day.
In the car with me are two top Honda executives from the company’s fuel cell division, my photographer and a gentle whine emanating from the basketball-sized electric drive unit powering Clarity’s two front wheels. Though the car is as aerodynamic as they come, with wind noise at a minimum, the sound from outside is louder than any racket the car itself is making.
A vessel holding hydrogen pressurized at 5,000 pounds per square inch sits between the rear wheels. It’ll get Clarity about 200 miles before a refill.
The gas flows through race car-like plumbing lines into fuel cell “stacks” beneath the cockpit’s center console. That’s where the magic happens, where hydrogen is turned into electricity which powers the car and all its systems, with but one emission: pure water.
What’s now become electricity then travels into the engine compartment (or in this case, the motor compartment) where computers and controllers divvy up the power as needed for the drive unit, the electric air conditioning, electric power steering, electric drive-by-wire throttle, nav system and stereo, instrument panel, interior and exterior lights, even to operate the hydrogen gas sensor in the cockpit.
Apart from the small amount of lubricant used in Clarity’s one-speed transmission, no other oil products are needed by the car. Even the seat material is made out of plant fiber. And Clarity is a plenty big four-door sedan, with copious leg and headroom front and rear, weighing-in at about 3,600 pounds.
The ride is smooth, quiet, fast and fun. On this day we’re not on some well-protected test track, but barreling along with the mid-day So Cal flow, braking hard and flicking the wheel to dodge junk in the roadway and casually making lane changes with nary a care in the world. If it wasn’t illegal, I’d probably be texting, too.
After about five minutes in the pilot’s seat, FCX Clarity becomes just another car, just another Honda-type conveyance/appliance. The car fits in so well with others on the road that it barely draws a glance from other motorists.
There remain many questions about the technology, from how to “manufacture” the hydrogen to delivering it to fueling stations, from how much energy it takes to make the electricity to real concerns about their cost.
One thing became clear after spending a day with fuel cell engineers from seven of the world’s biggest car companies: they’re all on the same page when it comes to answering their critics, and they’re going to be more vocal and forceful about confronting what they call “flawed” information and taking their message to the public and government.
The real battle for our EV hearts and minds is about the begin.
Steve Parker is the automotive blogger for the Huffington Post (www.HuffingtonPost.com/steve-parker), a consultant and contributor for the NBC-TV automotive show Whipnotic and its companion Web site (www.Whipnotic.com), and can be heard live and worldwide every Saturday and Sunday starting at 5 p.m. Pacific time on www.TalkRadioOne.com. His home site is www.SteveParker.com and his column, Tornante, runs exclusively every week in the SMDP.