Honda Fuel Cell Manager Dispels Myths

The sleek, sporty new design of the Honda FCX fuel cell vehicle certainly grabbed the attention of visitors to the 2007 North American International Auto Show, which runs through Jan. 21.

Before: Honda’s FCX fuel cell vehicle has been doing commute and carpool duty by a family in Redonda Beach, Calif.

After: The redesigned Honda FCX, in concept form, is on display at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. It’s slated for limited production in 2008.

The FCX’s predecessor, by comparison, was downright dowdy—but don’t think for a minute that Honda’s design team was asleep at the switch. Honda was apparently making a point— a fuel cell vehicle could be an everyday car for an everyday family. In fact, the previous Honda FCX model has been doing commute and carpool duty by a family in Redondo Beach, Calif., for almost two years. Prior to that, the city of Los Angeles was giving a limited number of Honda FCX vehicles for everyday use.

By handing over a fuel cell car to a private family—the first effort of its kind—Honda hoped to learn how to overcome the obstacles to bringing a fuel cell vehicle to a mass market. They must be learning a thing or two. The company plans a limited production rollout of the FCX in 2008, and expects to sell fuel cell vehicles to the general market by 2018.

Bradley Berman, editor of HybridCars.com, sat down with Steve Ellis, Honda manager of alternative fuel vehicles, at the auto show in Detroit.

BB: Honda has four years of experience with putting hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the hands of ordinary drivers. Can you say with any certainty when fuel cell vehicles will be available to consumers?

SE: When people ask when hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be relevant for the masses, you’ll often hear 10 to 20 years, or 20 to 30 years. It’s so vague and broad because there are still [technology and infrastructure] hurdles to cross. If breakthroughs come, that’s great—but without breakthroughs, it’s going to be slow incremental steps. This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint.

BB: Why is it so hard for the public to understand hydrogen fuel cells?

SE: The public knows two historical events related to hydrogen. And neither of them is very positive. First, there’s the Hindenburg (the German dirigible that exploded and crashed in New Jersey in 1937). Science has proven that the flames were sustained because of the coating of the covering on the Hindenburg. The fuel did exactly what it was supposed to do. It ignited and ‘flash,’ it was gone.

The other event was, of course, the hydrogen bomb. Scientists have said that it never should have been called the hydrogen bomb. Hydrogen had such a tiny part of it. Hydrogen in and of itself is not a bomb. It doesn’t explode like that.

People worry about the safety of hydrogen, but somewhere in America, today, there’s going to be a tragic accident in a gasoline vehicle. A fire department will respond. What will be the result at the end of the day? Nobody will do anything different. But it will take years and years for people to become as accustomed to hydrogen as they are with gasoline today.

BB: What is the public missing?

SE: People need to understand that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are safe. We wouldn’t have handed the keys to the hydrogen car to an ordinary family if we didn’t think it was safe. And the public should understand that it’s zero emissions. Other technologies offer reductions, but hydrogen is the only opportunity for completely eliminating carbon emissions from the transportation fuel cycle.

BB: If advanced automobile batteries get better very quickly, won’t there be less of a need for a fuel cell vehicle?

SE: Regardless, the electric vehicle faces a charge-time issue that you don’t have with a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The greater the battery capacity, the longer it takes to charge. That’s the nature of the beast. You can refill a hydrogen fuel cell in the same amount of time as it takes to refill a gasoline car – about 3-5 minutes.

Of course, people say the economics of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles don’t make sense. The hydrogen fuel stations are $1 million per copy. Consider this: Large, public gas stations for natural gas vehicles were $1 million (each) when they first came out. Those costs have been driven down to $500,000 today, and can probably go much less when people target that in volume. The same thing will apply to hydrogen.

And if there’s some kind of doomsday in the future with oil, these higher-priced alternatives will be a bargain in comparison. It will not be about just the price of oil. It will be, plain and simple, the availability of oil.

BB: How does your fuel cell program compare to your competitors’ programs?

SE: They are not so much competitors as business associates. We all have to work on common themes, like refueling infrastructure, codes and standards, customer acceptance of the vehicles, and customer understanding of the safety of hydrogen. That’s important to all of us. At this early stage of the technology, its infancy, this is like a community of mothers nurturing all the children. We need everyone to succeed.


  • Jeff in Burnsville, MN

    Fuel cell powered automobiles are a more complex discussion than this article presents. For example, hydrogen is not carbon emission free if it is generated from fossil fuels (which contain carbon). Only if it is generated by renewable energy is it genuinely carbon free; however, electric cars “fueled” by renewable (e.g., wind) energy could offer a nearer-term solution, and probably at lower expense, for at least some automotive niches.

    That said, I am glad Honda is committed to doing something *now*, while taking a “long view” about making fuel cells a viable powerplant for the future.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Although it’s been exhaustively explained before by those who won’t make a buck off of the fuel cell/Hydrogen myth:
    1. Hydrogen generated from electricity uses 3 to 4 times as much electricity to run a car as a simple battery electric (BEV) or plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV). That means that while $10K worth of solar cells on your roof might provide enough electricity to handle your driving needs, it would take $30K worth of solar cells to drive using hydrogen (whether using fuel cells or normal Internal Combustion Engine (ICE)).
    2) Hydrogen generated from natural gas uses a bit more natural gas to drive a mile than you would need if you just used a natural gas hybrid. So why bother since I can refuel a natural gas car from the natural gas already at my home.
    3) Fuel cells are inherently complex and fragile. It is very unlikely they will ever be cost competitive with plain old ICE.

    If Honda really cared about producing clean and/or efficient cars, they would continue producing their EV+ (pure BEV) or offer a CNG fuel version of the Civic Hybrid TODAY. They would also quit throwing us their tired line about how they are spending so much effort developing the FCX which will always be ‘just around the corner’ and ‘almost cheap enough’.
    Clearly the FCX is just an excuse to continue selling gasoline powered cars for as long as Honda can.

  • indigo

    I can see the value of a H2-battery hybrid, however. A car that could run 30-40 miles on battery before switching to hydrogen would be quite useful. Basically, I’d like to see a car that combined the best aspects of the FCx and Volt.

  • Rudolf

    Full hybrids (petrol/diesel) should be in use to make the transition to BEV with PHEV as a first step.
    SKIP FCX and a like, they are a not realistic excuse to do nothing right now.

  • Daniel

    Question: Why not create the Hydrogen as you drive with electroalsys(SP?) of water? The power for that can come from systems similar to the regen brakeing on current hybrids. This would eleminate the need for the “infrastructure” everyone keep complaining about. Second a small discrete solar cell that is designed to “fit” into the style of the car can power the electroalsys when your not driving. I.E. when the car is sitting on the parking lot all day at work. While I know that will never supply all the fuel it is something that would not be otherwise. Just my thoughts.

  • Peter

    I remember some cars from the seventies that had big rubber pointed bumbers on shocks so you would actually hit simething and not cave in the whole front of the car. With all the delicate electronics on hybrids, why not create a bumber that actually is one? Look at teh nose on the new Honda concept or on most cars today. If you hit something, your car is toast. I had on old Opel 1900 in high school that had better bumbers. Remember, plastic cracks.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Daniel, While your ideas are great in theory, the details make them impractical. Electrolysis of water (H2O) to make hydrogen (H2) can be done with an electrolyzer (essentially a fuel cell stack), however the speed at which they can produce H2 is determined by the size of the fuel cell stack (the number and size of the catalytic plates). If you look at the amount of energy you need to shed in a short amount of time (Power) to capture regenerative braking, you find that it takes a huge fuel cell stack. These catalytic plates are coated with platinum, therefore, cost minimization requires minimizing the plates.
    Perhaps a solution would be to use a battery or ultra-capacitor to capture the regenerative braking energy quickly, then slowly transfer that energy to a smaller electrolyzer. But then one might ask what the benefit of the electrolyzer/fuel cell would be since one could simply use the energy that is stored in the battery /ultra-capacitor.
    Note that today’s fuel cell cars (such as the FCX) use the smallest fuel cells that they can and use a battery (or ultra-capacitor) to capture the regenerative energy and to provide extra power for acceleration, just like a conventional hybrid.
    Your solar cell idea also fails when you see how little energy can be collected from the amount of sunlight that hits an automobile.
    Keep up the thoughts though!

  • Todd Rusten

    There is a debate about H2 internal combustion vs. H2 fuel cell powered automobiles. Why not make a hybrid that uses both?

  • michael maduro

    i think that they should try to make both in the same car and see which one runs the best

  • Chris

    Forget the Hydrogen hype: I have your charging solution right here – Interchangeable Battery Packs.

    I give you permission to call them “IBP”s.

    You drive into the charge station and the battery pack in your car is exchanegd for a nice new charged one (imagine if you can, your pack sits under your passenger area, its removed via a machine), then you are on your way.

    Your old battery pack sits and gets charged at the charging station, when its ready to go, another car drops by and loads it up. The charging station stocks several hundred of the packs which are charged via whaterver means you like, solar, wind, water, bio-mass, hamsters, etc.

    All these problems are too simple to solve, you just need to think about it.

    But really what you need to do is get off your lazy buts and ride a bike…Or move closer to where you work…

    Honda should focus on making Affordable safe human powered cars.

    SUVs are disgusting dinosaurs sucking up our resources to chauffer pyscho soccer moms and
    dysfunctional cowboys.

    The only real problem is stupidity, cure that and you will solve all our problems at once.

  • chochem7

    I have a Civic Hybrid and so far it gives me about 600 miles full tank 12 gallons ( 50 MPG). Have anyone tried using water fuel cells on hybrids yet? How can I double my hybrid miles? Please let me know if someone had tried, then we can talk.
    God Bless………

  • Steve Levy

    From: Steven Levy, 3 Smilax Drive Homosassa, Fl 34446

    (**) Phasing in hydrogen fuel cells stations across the country.

    If our great nation can put a man on the Moon when they set up a Federally backed program with an objective to accomplish this wonderful task.
    Question: why doesn’t the Federal Government set up a program with AUTO Fuel cell makers by setting goals; example May 2009 (TBD) plus (**)? This type of an approach to get fuel cell autos out to the American consumer in a shorter period of time.

    (**) Using life cycle milestones and phasing in hydrogen fuel cells stations across the country with consumer incentives to purchase a hydrogen fuel cell auto.

    Understanding gas and oil based products due to the very high cost to the American consumer will have a direct impact on there life styles as well as a impact on the middle east, etc.., economy (the Cain reaction to convert to a fuel cell – hydrogen fuel based economy), etc. and hydrogen fuel cost to the consumer should cost considerably less lot less than gas to travel a similar distance (of course the need to incorporate a GPS tracking type of a device for tax purposes).
    Hydrogen fuel cells for automobiles would be a viable alternative (if our Federal Government will help the American public buy down the cost of a fuel cell auto to the consumer wishing purchasing a fuel cell auto) this will benefit all of us, our economy and lesson our need on middle eastern oil and perhaps cut back on some of our demands to be there, etc.. Do you think the big oil companies will ever allow this to occur ?

  • J

    Did you not know it is possible to create hydrogen at your home using natural gas. The better peace about is one by product is heat so you can heat your home, pool, etc. It would be quite simple to create a coil heating system for you home hot water as well or if you prefer introduce a fuel-cell in your home and generate from one source (Natural Gas), all your home and auto needs. This will also be a good product for businesses to have. They will also be able to use the hydrogen to have a backup fuel-cell for mission critical applications and to run their fleet, while reducing heating charges. Why is this not further along and more in the public hands?

    A little science project for you as well. Take 2 pieces of graphite (can be found in a pencil) add a small solar panel (or a small battery) using 2 pieces of copper wire. wrap each piece of copper around lower part of the graphite. Put one piece on the negative and one on the positive post. submerge the graphite and wire in salt water. and watch it bubble. One post is Hydrogen the other is oxygen chloride. Again a side effect of the hydrogen created is chlorine.

    Picture this on a large scale. Say on the roof you your home. I know it takes more energy to make the hydrogen, but the panels are not easy to transport, where as the hydrogen can be transported.

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