There are companies who exist to make money for their investors, and there are companies who exist to solve problems of our world. The former prefers to public relations, announce token electrification projects to keep up with trends, and are usually lead by CEOs who like to use odd words like annualised synergies and cost-avoidance measures.
Companies from the latter category tie their goals to creating a better world. Volvo Car wants to see zero road fatalities in their cars by 2020. BMW wants to change the entire automotive supply chain to be truly sustainable, Google wants to use big data to solve the world’s problem.
Which brings us to the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell that you see here. It’s a fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCV). In simple words, it’s an electric car but unlike regular electric car, you fill it up with hydrogen instead of charging it. The benefit is longer driving range and it fuels up in a matter of minutes rather than hours.
FCVs use technology derived from NASA space shuttles to generate electricity by mixing stored hydrogen with oxygen from air. The only emission from the exhaust is water.
Refueling the Clarity’s twin pressurized tanks takes as little as three to five minutes but of course, this leads us into the next question – electric sockets are everywhere but where are the hydrogen stations?
Up until this point, Honda’s achievements with the Clarity is commendable but doesn’t warrant them worthy of any higher mention than Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, or even Toyota, all of which have their own fuel cell-powered models at various stages of deployment.
For most car makers, the responsibility of building enough hydrogen refueling stations is beyond them. Providing the infrastructure is something that governments of the world and energy companies should be responsible for, and that’s a reasonable response by any car company.
Generating hydrogen is one thing, but how do you transport hydrogen throughout the country in a manner that’s cheap enough? Compressed hydrogen tanks are extremely heavy.
Expecting any solutions from oil companies is like going to the world’s biggest exporter of arms for peaceful solutions to armed conflicts.
It is at this point where Honda comes to fore. As an outsider in the energy sector, Honda approached the problem with a new perspective. To Honda, the solution is simple - eliminate these problems by generating hydrogen on-site.
In 2015, Honda, a car maker succeeded in doing something that specialist energy companies said was not possible – to build a hydrogen generation and refueling infrastructure in sufficient numbers, at a commercially viable prices.
Honda, in partnership with industrial gas tank manufacturer Iwatani, had in 2014 introduced a cost-effective and ultra-compact two-in-one hydrogen generation and refueling station, one that’s far smaller than a traditional petrol station and is compact enough to be fitted within a commercial building’s car park.
The Honda Smart Hydrogen Station (SHS) takes up only about 2 car park lots, and uses free solar power to generate hydrogen from water on-site. It doesn’t not require a full-time staff on-site to maintain. Its simple construction means that the station can be setup in a matter of days, no ground breaking work is needed. It can be setup much faster and cheaper than a petrol station. A petrol station needs oil tankers to resupply but Honda’s SHS will resupply itself so long as there is supply of sun light/electricity and water.
Just to emphasize the scale of Honda’s achievement, this tiny two-car park lot size structure is doing the work that is analogous to combining a deep sea oil drilling platform and a petrol station. Of course, there are limitations. The compact SHS has enough storage tanks to refuel just three Honda Clarity FCVs per day but this can easily be solved by upscaling the setup.
We had the opportunity to take a short three-minute drive in the Honda Clarity FCV late last year. Compared to the Toyota Mirai, the Clarity scored a major victory in interior space and driving range. Where the Mirai sits only four, the Clarity sits five, just like a regular sedan, and offers a much longer driving range (approximately 800 km vs the Mirai’s 650 km, based on Japan’s JC08 driving test cycle).
The Clarity is also more powerful; 177 PS vs 155 PS but the Mirai has more torque, at 335 Nm vs the Clarity’s 300 Nm. However, the Clarity weighs 40 kg lighter, at 1,850 kg.
Outside, the Clarity is certainly not the best looking car on the road, but much of this is due to the highly challenging task of keeping the FCV components compact. The biggest challenge is is making the fuel stack compact enough to fit under the bonnet, which explains the high bonnet height.
Inside, the Clarity is as spacious as an Accord, with Acura-like button-operated gear position switches. On the move, it handles and drives much better, thanks to its better weight distribution of heavy components between the front and rear of the vehicle.
Like an Accord Plug-in Hybrid (available in Japan and USA), the Clarity accelerates off the line with gusto thanks to the instant availability of maximum torque from standstill. But unlike an Accord Plug-in Hybrid, there is no petrol engine to kick so all you get is a drama-free, completely silent experience as the car picks up speed at a surprisingly rapid pace.
The sprint from 0-100 km/h is completed in 9 seconds, with a top speed of 165 km/h. Sitting on the driver’s seat, the Clarity FCV appears to pull with a lot more urgency than its on-paper figures suggests, especially in mid-range acceleration, the kind of moves one makes when overtaking on a highway.
The video below, taken from inside a stripped out, lightweight race car interior version of the Clarity FCV can’t fully convey the car’s pace, but we can tell you that the occupants were all pinned to their seats everytime the throttle is floored.
Boot space however, is still lacking as the twin hydrogen tanks - a 24-litre unit under the rear seat and a 117-litre unit behind it - still up a lot of space.
There are two flaps on either sides of the rear fenders but unlike Mercedes-Benz’s GLC F-Cell, none of the Clarity FCV’s flaps can be plugged for charging. Under the front seats is a 103 kW lithium-ion battery pack but it can only be charged by the fuel cell.
The flap on the left-side is for hydrogen refueling while the one on right, despite what the pictures might suggest, is meant for power output rather than input. In other words, you plug-in the Clarity FCV to charge/power something else, not the other way around. In natural disaster prone Japan, this is a huge benefit.
Plugged in to the Clarity FCV is the Power Exporter 9000 – essentially an inverter that converts DC power from the car into AC power that you can use to power any household electrical appliance. We are not talking about running a small fan for a few hours, but powering a small household for seven days, including power hungry portable heaters! You can think of the Clarity FCV as a big power bank on wheels.
At the moment, the Clarity FCV is priced at 7.66 million Yen, more expensive than even Honda’s flagship Legend. Unsurprisingly, Honda doesn’t bother selling it so the Clarity FCV is only available for leasing, only in Japan and USA. The car is also available in Europe, but only as part of a trial by selected customers under the Europe Union’s HyFive project.
Over in the US, Honda has already launched two more alternative drivetrain variants to the Clarity family – the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid with a 1.5-litre Atkinson cycle petrol engine and a Clarity Electric, a conventional Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) with a 143 km single charge range (US EPA driving test cycle).
As for us on this side of the world, clearly a hydrogen sipping electric vehicle is too far-fetched for our market but the important take away here is that this is the end-goal for today’s hybrids and plug-in hybrids – a true zero emission vehicle whose end-to-end cycle, from production to refueling to recycling (at the end of its life) leaves no harmful residue.
An innovation of this level doesn’t come from regular R&D engineers. How does a car maker stretch itself from developing alternative energy drivetrains, to shouldering the responsibility of solving complex problems to energy generation and storage, and still thrive?
Speaking to some of the Honda associates behind the Clarity, we came to understand that for these engineers who proudly wear the white Honda overalls, they don’t see themselves as merely doing their job, but on a personal mission to preserve blue skies for their children.
Along the way, we learn the meaning behind the Japanese word ‘Ikigai.’ There is no equivalent word in English to truly express the meaning of ‘ikigai,’ but it’s roughly translated as ‘the reason one wakes up every morning,’ or ‘one’s purpose to be placed here on earth.’
For the people behind the Clarity and Smart Hydrogen Station, they don’t get up every morning to work for Honda. They get up to find solutions to keep the skies blue for our children, and Honda is merely a facilitator to that dream. “If someone is going to do it, let it be us,” was how one Honda associate describe his role on the Clarity FCV.
Japan is betting the future of its transportation sector on hydrogen. It believes that no matter how advanced battery electric vehicles (BEVs) become, it’s still limited by driving range, recharging time and the suitability for heavy duty commercial vehicles is doubtful (no, Tesla’s Semi is just a concept. Tesla has yet to build a functional BEV truck).
Japan is aiming to put 40,000 FCVs by 2020, the year it hosts Tokyo Olympics. The Japanese government estimates that supporting the 40,000 FCVs on the road would realistically require about 160 refueling stations, but high construction and operating cost mean that each station needs to service 900 vehicles a year to be profitable.
It’s a similar situation in Europe, where the European Union also has an equally ambitious HyWays Roadmap. Neither powerhouse nations of the automotive industry can risk being left behind but nobody has clear solution on how to roll out hydrogen refueling stations fast and cheap enough.
Together with the ultra-compact Smart Hydrogen Station and the practical five-seater Clarity FCV that does everything a regular sedan can and then more, Honda might have just cracked the code to kickstart a hydrogen society.