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FUTURE OF FLEET: Honda's hydrogen horizon

Date: 01 December 2009

Sachito Fujimoto, project leader for the FCX Clarity, the world's first production fuel cell car, speaks to Tristan Young about Honda's electric technology

Follow a timeline that predicts how our cars will be powered in the future and many believe the end-game is electric.

The reason electric power is seen as the best future propulsion for vehicles is that it doesn't rely on fossil fuels, a finite resource that will at some point run out.

While there have are hybrid electric vehicles available now, which offer a stepping stone from petrol or diesel, the only full-electric cars available have been of the plug-in variety, which have a limited range, requiring drivers to choose a different mode of transport for longer journeys.

Honda's solution has been to develop the world's first production hydrogen-powered car called the FCX Clarity, which generates its own electricity on-board using a hydrogen fuel cell. The technology means refuelling takes no longer than filling a conventional car with diesel, while offering a range of nearly 300 miles.

However, despite this technological advancement, the biggest concern regarding hydrogen as a fuel remains - how will the infrastructure be put in place?

"Until today we've had an extreme period of fuel propulsion, which has just been fossil fuel, but that has led to the problems we're in now with the potential shortage of fossil fuels. In order to move to a sustainable fuel we need an infrastructure," says Honda's Sachito Fujimoto, project leader for the brand's FCX Clarity, the world's first production fuel cell car. "We think the car maker will play the biggest role in this because they need to supply the cars first. It won't work the other way round.

"Cars like the FCX Clarity may just convince people there is a need for infrastructure and may convince investors. Honda is not going to become an infrastructure provider, but we will help with the technology to the energy supplier."

Still, although Honda already has a production fuel-cell car, it's not available in great volumes, so time is on the manufacturer's side.

"It's difficult to predict the future, it depends on many things," says Fujimoto commenting on when both pricing and availability will match today's conventionally powered cars. "It's not one to two years or even three to four years away, but I believe it will be a reality. By 2015 there will be a proper introduction of a fuel cell car and a steady increase to 2020. And then the price will come down to a proper level.

"Once mass production technology is in place, then it will come down."

Currently Honda only leases the vehicles in the USA and Japan at $600 a month - a subsidised price.

"We're not intending to lease the cars in future, we're only doing that to offset some of the development cost and get feedback on the market," says Fujimoto. "When they are widely available the cars will be sold. So we see the used car market working like it does now in the conventional way.

"But in the future we need to get away from this consuming habit of just getting product out of the ground, using it and then disposing of it. As humans we must think of this more and recycle more."

This opens up fleet's final major issue with fuel-cell vehicles, namely how are they serviced and what's the life of a fuel-cell car?

"The fuel cell is meant to be a unit that should, in future, be maintenance free, but because it's new we don't know what the life of the fuel cell is. But our current thinking is that it should be for the life of the vehicle," explains Fujimoto.

"Cars in the USA on trial are on a normal service schedule [annual] but also have on-board telemetry so we can monitor data from the car," he continues.

"Most of the car can be serviced by a regular dealer, but if you touch anything to do with the hydrogen then local safety laws kick in."

How fuel cells work

Fuel cells combine hydrogen (from the fuel tank) with oxygen (in the air) to produce electricity, with the waste product being water. Fuel cells do this using a membrane layer made from expensive metals, such as platinum, that does the combining of oxygen and hydrogen and capturing the electricity. Fuel cells have been around for more than 100 years, but only in the past 20 years have they been developed commercially for vehicles. Fuel cells can and have been developed to run on other fuels