September 10th, 2018 by Kyle Field
Honda’s Clarity line of vehicles was developed to lead the charge in bringing alternative fuel vehicles into production. The line started out as the Honda FCX Clarity and eventually came into its own when the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid and Clarity Electric were added to the mix.
Honda recently reached out to us to see if we wanted to spend a week in the award-winning Clarity Fuel Cell. Naturally, we obliged. They sent over what I’ve unofficially dubbed the “Stormtrooper Special,” as it resembles that ominous bunch of warriors and also emits an odd hiss every so often when starting and stopping the car, which seemed to remind my kids of Darth Vader.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still very much in the early stages of their development, assuming they will eventually mature, and still have a handful of significant hurdles to overcome before they’ll be able to compete with battery electric vehicle on vehicle price, well-to-wheel efficiency, cost of operation, ease of fueling, and a few other key metrics, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play an important role in the zero-emission future of transportation.
Getting into the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell vehicle, you are immediately overwhelmed with its most obvious feat — it feels completely normal. It’s just a normal modern car, loaded with navigation, a fun screen, and buttons to select a gear, right where you would expect them to be. It starts with the push of a button, much like many modern cars do today, and a tap of the “D” button puts in into drive.
Aside from a few odd whirs and hums, it drives much like other electric cars on the market. The whirring of the fuel cell as it pulls in oxygen from the surrounding air and pumps hydrogen in from the onboard tanks puts the activity level of the car a step louder than a traditional battery electric vehicle, but still far below the average hybrid vehicle.
Stepping on the accelerator reveals a very normal feeling pedal with acceleration that could have just as easily been in a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. The 174 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque the Clarity’s electric motors boasts under the hood won’t put up record breaking 0–60 numbers, but neither will your Civic. Having said that, the motor is more than competent on city streets and freeways. More importantly, it provides a nice smooth ride that is an improvement over every internal combustion vehicle I’ve driven to date.
Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. The Honda Clarity line of vehicles is a modern take on the design lines Honda has become known for. The Clarity kicks it up a notch with bold vertical LED running lights and more angular framing around the corners, which make it feel larger and more futuristic at the same time.
The nose of the Clarity Fuel Cell manages to pull this off with a bit of class, with the headlights hinting at the future without giving away just how different it really is. Sliding to the side and the sleek lines start to slip and lose cohesion as the rear of the vehicle seems to lift away at an awkward angle.
The upshot of the large vehicle size of the Clarity line is that it leaves a good amount of room in the trunk. The fuel cell system eats up more of that than its fair share of the space, but the trunk is still sufficient for a few pieces of luggage.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell comes with an EPA range rating of 366 mile EPA per fill-up. In our testing, the first complete fill-up of the vehicle resulted in a full-tank range of 299 miles. The second fill-up came in surprisingly lower, at 257 miles of range.
I reached out to Honda about this and the company shared a few points to put the total range in context. First off, the total displayed range is a function of how the vehicle has been driven. If the driver has a lead foot (as I apparently do), the real-world range displayed on the gauge takes that into account, much like battery electric vehicles do.
Second, Honda shared that the 366 mile range rating for the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell includes reserve range. Reserve range is typically additional range that the vehicle is capable of traveling beyond the point where the gauge reaches the empty mark. It’s typically held back to allow the driver to get to a fueling station on the rare occurrence when the driver did not plan appropriately or simply forgot to fill up when it was convenient.
Fuel cell degradation is also a factor, but the relatively low number of deployed fuel cell vehicles to date makes it difficult to gauge the effects of fuel cell degradation in production vehicles. What little data is available is shrouded in a veil of secrecy as Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai push for mainstream adoption of their fuel cell vehicles. Early studies based on admittedly insufficient data show an approximate 10% degradation in fuel cell performance over 10 years, which is really not that bad, all things considered.
Honda opted not to comment on the matter. For the sake of expediency and lack of data to support substantive claims, let’s chalk it up to my lead foot and move on.
Fueling infrastructure for hydrogen is clearly lacking at the moment. The greater Los Angeles area has more charging stations than any other metropolitan area in the world, and a look at the Hydrogen Station Finder App by Air Liquide reveals that, while the number of dots on a map look great, the reality is that many of the stations are only open a limited number of hours per day, are often out of fuel or are otherwise constrained when it comes to the overall availability of H2.
We made a point of taking a few longer trips in the Clarity Fuel Cell and mapped them out along a route chock full of fueling stations, from Oxnard, California, out to El Monte, California. The 4 stations in proximity to the route were all out of hydrogen (2), closed (1) or taken offline due to a large delivery from the station the next morning (1). The fueling experience left a lot to be desired and opened my eyes to some of the growing pains of the hydrogen fueling network, growing pains nearly impossible to see without just going out and experiencing the network.
Keep an eye out for a more in-depth dive into the current state of hydrogen fueling in the coming weeks as we wrap up our research into hydrogen fueling stations.
Cost of Fueling
Fuel pricing is also a new world, as consumers are suddenly faced with fuel being served up on a per kilogram basis. Much like we have done with electric cars, translating vehicle efficiency from miles per gallon to miles per kilowatt-hour, buyers will have to translate into miles per kilogram.
With the low volumes of hydrogen stations currently operating at, the price per kilogram is still rather expensive. We spent $15.99 for the stations we visited around the greater Los Angeles area. It’s worth noting that the EPA’s Fuel Economy.gov uses $5.55/kg as the price of hydrogen, drastically understating the cost of driving a Fuel Cell vehicle in the resulting calculations.
The price of hydrogen should come down over time as hydrogen production and transportation technology improves, along with the station technology itself. For now, Honda is offsetting the need to pay $70,000 for ~280 miles of range with a $15,000 gas card that it expects will cover the cost of hydrogen for the first few years. At the price per mile we experienced, the car would cover roughly 60,000 miles — or 5 years of driving for the typical American.
Dollars & Cents
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is primarily being made available as a closed-end lease with $2,868 down plus $369/month for 3 years. That nets out to $16,152 for 3 years .. .but it also comes with the aforementioned $15,000 fuel card. Factoring that in takes the sting off of the price and allows drivers to essentially lock in 3 years of fixed cost driving in a zero-emission vehicle.
Granted, paying today’s price of $16/kg for hydrogen is significantly higher than the cost of driving an internal combustion vehicle, but that is expected to drop as production volumes increase. And yes, I know that’s a big “but” to hinge a vehicle purchase on, but even at today’s prices, the inclusion of the fuel card makes the purchase much more palatable.
Either way, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell comes with a pretty large caveat — it only makes sense if you live in an area with tons of fueling stations. We currently live smack dab in the middle of the two nearest fueling stations, at around 30 miles away from us in either direction. That makes us ineligible to get into a Clarity Fuel Cell, and rightly so. We’d end up spending a minimum of 60 miles of range per tank just getting to and from the fueling station.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is an attractively packaged zero-emission vehicle. It’s not perfect but hints at the possibility of a zero-emission fuel cell vehicle for the masses if the technology can overcome a few key hurdles — like fueling infrastructure, fuel pricing, fuel supply stability, and well-to-wheel energy efficiency, to name a few.
The driving experience all but eliminates any learning curve that could be expected with a new technology, with the one exception of fueling. Fueling up is fairly straightforward and doesn’t require a visit to the Shell Genius Bar or anything magical or difficult to learn how to do it.
We’ll have our eyes on fuel cell vehicles and the more challenging fueling infrastructure buildout in the coming years as forward-looking states like California set themselves on the expensive “tip of the spear” pathway to 50 hydrogen fueling stations by 2020.
Images courtesy Honda & Kyle Field
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