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.