I’m whirring up New York’s Hudson Valley on a steady stream of pressurized hydrogen, leaving nothing but water vapor in my wake, and I’m impressed. Honda gave its Clarity Fuel Cell crisp lines, sleek styling, and a spacious interior. The all-electric sedan comes with three years of fuel on the house, fancy features, and affordable lease rates. It accelerates with a jolt, even if it won’t beat a Tesla of the line.
It’s a terrific car packed with perks. The problem is the hydrogen—and it has been for a long time.
This is the third hydrogen-powered Honda I’ve driven in the past 15 years. Each came with the promise that the infrastructure to keep their fuel cells topped off was finally—or was about to be—acceptable. I’ve heard the argument from Toyota, BMW, GM, Kia, and Hyundai, all of which have spent decades singing the hydrogen song. Collectively, they’ve put not quite 2,000 fuel cell-powered cars on US roads.
It’s not that the technology is stagnant. Honda’s original 2002 FCX was an awkward and anemic two-door subcompact. Its successor, the FCX Clarity that bowed in 2008, was a more refined and robust sedan, but its fuel stack occupied a space-stealing tunnel running down the middle of the car. They were actually fun cars, but they failed to deliver on range, affordability, and performance—and there was basically nowhere to refuel.
The new Clarity Fuel Cell is the latest result of the auto industry’s insistence that hydrogen can work, and for this try, Honda eliminated every weakness it could. Its engineers cut the number of fuel cells by a third yet wring 170 horsepower from them. They reoriented the cell stack to make room for five seats, and reworked the Clarity’s tanks to hold enough hydrogen for 366 miles of range, compared to 240 in its predecessor. The slippery aerodynamics improve efficiency and reduce wind noise. The sedan even includes a sport mode, backed up by a better suspension, for when you’ve got the itch to burn through hydrogen with a bit of extra zeal.
Buy a Clarity, and you get advanced cruise control, radar and camera-assisted obstacle avoidance, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a head-up display, and a sporty suspension. The sleek new zero-emission ride can be yours for $369 per month over three years (about half the $600 a month you paid for the old FCX Clarity), which comes with a $15,000 fuel allowance.
That’s all well and good, but to win the hearts, minds, and checkbooks, Honda and fellow fuel cell pushers must crack the infrastructure. Right now, the only place in America driving on hydrogen is feasible is in California, which has 25 fueling stations: 16 in Los Angeles, nine in the Bay Area.
The state has already put $100 million into this project, it plans to spend another $20 million to support the installation of more than 100 stations by 2020. Hydrogen suppliers are working with automakers to make the stations more accessible and efficient. “Station costs are down, their capacity in terms of how many cars they can fuel at once is up, and the technology is improving,” says Stephen Ellis, Honda’s manager of fuel cell marketing. “They can fuel at twice the pressure now, further extending range, and both the car and the dispenser now talk to each other to optimize each fill for consistency and speed.”
Still, the “fuel of the future” faces the old chicken and egg scenario. All that development work is worthless if no one’s driving fuel cell cars; no one will buy the cars if they can’t refuel them conveniently.
So, why keep going with hydrogen, after 50 years of work that has yielded so little? For one, automakers seem to want one as many alternative-fuel options as possible. (Honda will also offer the Clarity as a pure battery electric, and as a plug-in hybrid.) And two, it’s a tantalizing vision: If you can get the fuel out there, you get zero-emission cars that match gas-powered vehicles for range and refueling speed—two places where battery-powered electrics struggle.
But until that vision is realized, Honda’s hoping the other goodies can get you onboard.