The most important car in 100 years?

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We have looked extensively at the future of transport; we’ve looked at some of the most ambitious ideas out there, but the Honda FCX and the imminent FCV look like they could be the answer to everyday transport around the globe – the future of the car…

The Honda FCX, or Fuel Cell eXperimental, has been described by automotive industry commentators as “the future”. They call it “beautiful”, “exceptional” and “a fantastic display of how far we’ve come”. American talk-show host, Jay Leno called it “the savoir of our sports cars” and BBC and Top Gear’s James May said the FCX is “the most important car since the car was invented.”

Everyone in the energy industry has heard of the FCX, although you probably haven’t seen too many on the streets, and people in the automotive industry who are understandably sceptical when it comes to electric vehicles are now looking at the FCX and calling it a fantastic achievement.

So what is it that Honda has done to make so many people turn and speak to positively about an electric car? Well, it isn’t the looks or the styling. While pretty, the FCX is no more astonishing than the standard four-door saloon that you see every day in the car park. And it isn’t the numbers; this car can reach 100 mph, it has 136 bhp and can do 0-60 in around 10 seconds. But it is the innovative way that the FCX is powered and the astonishing emissions numbers that make this vehicle a game changer.

The car is powered by hydrogen, and all of our friends in the oil and gas industry will be well aware that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe unlike petrol or diesel. Hydrogen is stored in the large 171 litre storage tank at the rear of the car. The hydrogen is then mixed with oxygen in a fuel cell that sits in the centre, between the two front seats. This creates electricity that powers the motor that turns the wheels. Of course, the only by-product of this type of power generation is water (H+O=H2O), and that is all that you will find coming out of the exhaust. U.S. publisher Ward, estimated that as of 2010 there were 1.015 billion motor vehicles in use in the world; the emission from these vehicles adds up to an almost unbelievable amount but imagine if just 10% of that number was taken away; imagine the impact on the environment and the amount of valuable oil that would be saved.

Honda has been working for many years on its hydrogen fuel cell technology and launched its first prototype FCX in 1999. Over the next decade, ideas were developed and the model became more advanced although it was rarely seen outside of California or Japan. In 2002, the FCX became the world’s first fuel-cell car certified by the U.S. EPA and California Air Resources Board for commercial use. In 2006, at the Detroit Auto Show, Honda announced that it would make a production version of the FCX concept that had been displayed at the previous year’s Tokyo Motor Show. As excitement built around this futuristic and innovative concept, other motor companies began to release their own concepts to the market and it seemed as if the world of driving was set to change.

In 2008 at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, Honda unveiled the FCX Clarity, the first production model. It was only available in California and would only be leased for a 36 month period until hydrogen filling stations had become more common. With the release of this new model came the attention of the world’s media, thrilled at the prospect of 100% eco-friendly driving, and thrilled that this electric car could travel over 250 miles without needing a charge and could be filled up in a matter of minutes.

By 2010, the FCX was famous and had become the major topic of discussion for motor enthusiasts and clean energy groups. And good news for those groups, Honda has announced that it is developing a new version; the FCV.

The FCV concept was debuted in Japan in November last year. This new model continues in the vein of its predecessor, promoting next-generation zero emissions Honda technology.

Honda says that the FCV could be launch in Japan by March of 2016 and that it will contain a number of improvements from the FCX Clarity including: power density of 3.1kW/L, an increase of 60%, with the stack size reduced 33%, a driving range of over 300 miles, space for five people, new styling and a power source that can potentially be used to power other things and not just the car’s electric motor.

The company said in a statement: “Honda has led the industry for nearly two decades in the development and deployment of fuel-cell technology through extensive real-world testing, including the first government fleet deployment and retail customer leasing program. Since the introduction of its first generation fuel-cell vehicle, the FCX, in 2002, Honda has made significant technological advancements in fuel-cell vehicle operation in both hot and sub-freezing weather while meeting customer expectations and safety regulations.”

Of course, with any type of ‘new energy’ there are critics, and right now they have a strong case. Currently, there is not a proper hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, even in ‘green areas’ such as Los Angeles. Filling with hydrogen is still fairly expensive; in the US it costs about the same to fill the tank of the FCX as it does to fill with petrol. Hydrogen is not available in its pure form anywhere in the world so needs to be treated before it can be used as a fuel – an energy intense, costly process. The FCX Clarity and FCV are still to be made from steel where production is not exactly ‘green’. The price of the FCV is still unknown but it is likely to be expensive because the technology is so advanced. Hydrogen cars have been investigated for decades and have always been called the future but still there has not been a breakthrough into mass production and use. But it seems that these are only temporary hurdles; after all, in the early years of the petrol car, there were not many filling stations, there were not many scientists producing v-power, early cars were big and clunky and not overly easy to handle, but everything develops and with the demands on hydrogen from other industries, it seems that this is a fuel that will develop quickly, becoming more and more efficient all the time.

So, as we approach that day when the oil eventually does run out, is hydrogen the answer? Are Honda on the right track? Right now there is not another vehicle that fits in with modern life that is 100% emission free. And as Leno said on Top Gear, “It will save the petrol, it will save the sports car. You can go out at the weekend and use your MG or Porsche and have fun and then take the FCX in the week and put it in the car park. It’s like how the automobile was the saviour of the horse. Horses would be whipped and die and then the car came along and freed the horse for recreational use and I think these types of cars will be the saviours of our sports cars.”

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