For a long time Japanese automaker Honda has promoted hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles as the best automotive technology of the future, promising its own hydrogen fuel cell car to rival the limited-production hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from Hyundai and Toyota.
At the end of October, Honda revealed that car at the Tokyo Motor Show in the form of the 2016 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Sedan, but remained tight-lipped about U.S. rollout plans for the hydrogen-powered vehicle.
Yesterday, ahead of the car’s U.S. debut this week at the LA Auto Show, Honda announced its intent to begin sales of the Clarity FCV in the U.S. towards the end of 2016, with initial rollout limited to the key market of California.
Like Toyota and its 2016 Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan, Honda believes its Clarity FCV will play an important part in its future vehicle lineup, paving the way towards more hydrogen fuel cell models and perhaps a mass-market hydrogen fuel cell future. Unlike Toyota however, we note Honda only calls the Clarity FCV a “potential game changer,” stopping short of Toyota’s all-or-nothing attitude towards hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Why mention this slight change in marketing speak? There was a time not so long ago that Honda’s devotion to hydrogen fuel cell technology was as strong as Toyota’s. Indeed, Honda, like Toyota, stopped sales of its limited-market Honda Fit EV as soon as it had hit the sales volume required in order to satisfy California ZEV mandates, despite massive demand for the highly-regarded electric car.
Similarly, its attitude to electric vehicles was similar to Toyota’s, claiming electric cars weren’t ready for mainstream use or that various technical and logistical problems prevented electric vehicle mass-adoption. But in recent months, we’ve noticed a significant shift in the way Honda is referring to both its hydrogen fuel cell technology and plug-in vehicles.
Instead of offering it as the only option, Honda is now looking at a dual-pronged approach, pairing the 2016 Clarity FCV with a plug-in hybrid vehicle which it says will launch in 2018 and offer triple the all-electric range of the outgoing 2015 Honda Accord plug-in hybrid. Based on the same platform as the Clarity FCV, that would translate to an all-electric range of around 40 miles per charge.
“The Clarity Fuel Cell will be priced competitively with others in the segment and Honda expects its new generation of environmental vehicles, which includes the Clarity Fuel Cell, to serve as a new volume pillar for Honda,” the company says in its official LA Auto Show press release.
Indeed, while Honda says it will spend the next four years ramping up its Clarity hydrogen fuel cell production, gradually expanding its hydrogen fuel cell availability as hydrogen infrastructure expands across the U.S. and Europe, it plans a nationwide, high-volume U.S. rollout for the unnamed plug-in hybrid model in just over two years’ time.
While full details of its 2018 plug-in hybrid are sketchy, the fact that Honda decided to mention it during its Clarity FCV press briefing in LA makes us think the Japanese automaker is now far more comfortable with a dual-pronged approach.
That’s not to say however that Honda has been slow to develop its hydrogen fuel cell technology. Unlike the Toyota Mirai FCV, the Clarity FCV has seating for five passengers, thanks to clever packaging of the hydrogen fuel cell tanks and lithium-ion battery pack under the vehicle’s floor. Improvements in fuel cell engineering meanwhile means that Honda has been able to reduce the fuel cell stack size by a third while improving power density by 60 percent compared with its previous fuel cell stack technology.
This means that the fuel cell stack and associated drivetrain can fit in the same physical space as a V-6 gasoline engine under the Clarity FCV’s hood, leaving interior cabin space far more open and welcoming than the cabin of the previous-generation, limited-production Clarity FCX prototypes Honda leased for a few years to a hundred or so customers in California.
When the Clarity FCV goes on sale towards the end of next year in the U.S., it will initially only be available to select customers in Los Angeles and Orange Counties of California, plus the cities of San Francisco and Sacramento. Eventually it promises, the Clarity FCV will become available in other U.S. states, following a similar rollout plan to the Toyota Mirai.
But as Honda is particularly aware, its rollout will be determined not by market demand, but the availability of hydrogen refuelling stations.
This, combined perhaps with the upsurge in plug-in vehicle popularity in recent years, has changed Honda’s attitude significantly it seems. But we for one, believe it’s a far better attitude.
Hydrogen, electric and plug-in hybrid models across Honda’s range would ensure its customers — not its board — decide which car is best for them.
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