Honda's zero emission car

June 16, 2008 9:25:32 AM PDT
Honda Motors Co. has started production of a car that runs on hydrogen fuel rather than oil, marking the first time a commercial vehicle will produce zero emissions. The FCX Clarity, which was introduced two years ago as a concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show, runs on electricity made from an onboard hydrogen-powered fuel cell battery. It will be available in July as part of limited lease program offered in California.

The three dealerships participating in the program are Power Honda Costa Mesa, Honda of Santa Monica, and Scott Robinson Honda in Torrance.

Actor Jamie-Lee Curtis and her husband, filmmaker Christopher Guest will be one of the first owners to take the new car technology out for a spin.

The announcement is one of the many signs that the latest price spike has pushed automakers to rev up the pace in bringing them to the market.

Just last week, Toyota announced that it would roll out plug-in hybrids with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in 2010. The electric, eco-friendly vehicles offer substantial savings over gas-powered cars.

"Whenever car companies are doing something pretty novel, they tend to very cautious," says Joseph Romm, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy. "GM and Toyota probably wanted to wait a few more years to improve the technology, but when the price of gas shot through the roof, they started to understand that the cars will sell like hot cakes."

Some road-ready options like natural gas vehicles have already begun to feed growing demand. "Phones are running off the hook over here," says Richard Kolodziej at the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles. "People are asking how to either convert their cars to natural gas or to buy one for themselves."

But to be successful in the long run, a next-generation automobile needs meet environmental standards and be flexible enough to fit a range of American lifestyles and incomes. And while the top contenders offer several benefits over the typical gas-guzzler, they have drawbacks too.

Natural Gas Vehicles

Natural gas vehicles have been on the road since the '70s but have not met the success in the United States as they have in other countries such as Brazil and Germany. Of the estimated 5 million NGVs on the streets today, only 130,000 are driven along U.S. roads.

Such a fact seems surprising considering there's a lot to like, on the surface at least. Natural gas is abundant in the United States, produces lower emissions and costs, about a third less than what's offered at the pump. Clean-burning fuel also means less wear and tear on the engine, which translates to fewer visits to the mechanic.

The Honda Civic GX, the only natural gas-powered car on the market, was rated the world's cleanest-burning engine by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"All these benefits that we have now, we've had it forever. Now we are seeing the economic benefits and people are responding to it," says Kolodziej. He points out that in states like Utah, where NGVs have caught on, drivers have been filling up at the rate of 65 cents a gallon.

Still, some don't think the potential savings are worth it if one takes into account all the inconveniences a NGV owner would have to live with. The Honda Civic GX, for instance, can only go 220 miles before having to refuel, about 130 miles less than the regular Honda civic. There have also been gripes about the lack of trunk space as the massive fuel tank takes up much of it.

Also, what works in one state, won't necessarily work in another. "If you live in California, you can probably get by with a natural gas vehicle," says Clayton Cornell, managing editor of the alternative energy site Greenoptions.com. "But with most places in the U.S. there just aren't enough refueling stations."

To make break into the mainstream, Cornell says, would require "massive investment in infrastructure."

Even so, natural gas is not an unlimited resource, a crucial factor that hurts its viability in the long-term. "If we switch toward using natural gas," says Cornell, "we will eventually be in the same situation as we are with oil."

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

A compelling argument for erecting natural gas stations is that they can help power another hydrogen fuel engine technology. Hydrogen fuel cells generated much excitement in 2003 when President Bush proposed a billion-dollar initiative to help develop "one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era." Arnold Schwartzenegger followed suit the very next year by launching the California Hydrogen Highways Network project to open up a hydrogen highway in the state by 2010. The governor marked the achievement by filling up a hydrogen-powered Toyota at a local gas station near Sacramento as he posed for snapshots.

Hydrogen fuel cell devices generate electric power by meshing hydrogen and oxygen. The only byproduct is water.

Last year, General Motors set up Project Driveway in which volunteers can test out a fleet of their hydrogen powered prototype, the Equinox.

Natural gas is not only the most effective way to make hydrogen, it's cost effective and environmentally friendly, says Brita Gross, GM's manager of hydrogen infrastructure and strategic commercialization. "We feel good about the technology," says Gross. "If you want something that can take recharge quickly and go long distances, here is an answer for it."

There are some difficult challenges that need to be addressed before hydrogen technology can be considered practical. Besides lacking the infrastructure to support it, fueling a hydrogen-powered car still costs more than gasoline.

Bomm, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, doubts that Hydrogen fuel cells will be viable during the first half of the century, if ever.

Until the vehicles lives up to the promise of not just clean, but affordable fuel, he poses the question: "Why would anybody spend billions of dollars building fueling stations that might be a wasted investment?"

Hybrid Electric Plug Ins

With the success of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, some experts see next-generation hybrid plug-ins as a logical successor and a step toward a fully electric car.

Unlike hybrids currently on the market, hybrid plug-ins can run on pure electricity for several miles before having to fall back on the gas engine. RechargeIt, a project launched by Google to demonstrate the possibilities of plug-in hybrids, converted hybrids to plug-ins and found that in real-world driving tests, some cars were able to achieve 100 mpg.

Though electrical power costs about a quarter the price of gasoline, Ron Cogan, editor of Greencar.com, says the biggest challenge is the costly price of batteries that can handle a plug-in charge.

"It's one thing to pay the extra cost of a hybrid, but add $10,000 more for batteries to get a plug-in hybrid makes it affordable for highly motivated people," he says.

And while plug-ins make use of an existing the infrastructure via the electric grid, there are additional challenges posed by a way of life shaped by oil. Mark Fields, President of Ford Motor Co. in North America, recently made a speech addressing obstacles such as the simple fact that many people who live in apartments, noting that many consumers who don't have garages would'nt have a way to recharge thier cars.

Cornell of greenoptions, who lives with a roommate in a two-person house, admits it would be a "tough" situation if they both owned plug-in vehicles that needed to be charged. Still, he doesn't see such a problem as a "deal breaker."

"If a car like that was available in an affordable price range, I'm sure we would figure something out," he says.

Ultimately though, with no clear-cut successor to gas-powered cars, consumers may be captives to the oil companies for many years to come.

For now, Cogan says, "There isn't a single answer, but plenty for those who are looking to cut fuel use."

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