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Published on November 25th, 2015 | by Kyle Field


New Fuel Cell Vehicles Come Up Short

November 25th, 2015 by  

Image Credit: Kyle Field

Image Credit: Kyle Field

While many auto manufacturers at the Los Angeles Auto show last week opted to hire out their feet on floor with temps in high heels and short dresses who seemed to barely know the brand they were working for, Honda brought a rep who actually had some training and held her own (while still sporting high heels and a short dress). She shared the latest details on Honda’s flagship “eco-vehicle” — the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle. While we are still (very) skeptical about the current state of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, two of Japan’s finest — Honda and Toyota — are pushing onward as if hydrogen was the long-awaited dream fuel brought down from the heavens, and both were eager to showcase it at the LA Auto Show last week.

The 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show marked the North American debut of the new and improved Honda Clarity Fuel Cell vehicle. That wouldn’t normally be noteworthy but in this case, it’s actually damning evidence for fuel cell vehicles. Rolling back the clock a few years to 2002, we find Honda’s first-generation fuel cell vehicle, the Honda FCX, which it brought to Southern California for a 100-vehicle pilot. The official press release for the new and improved Clarity shares:

“The Clarity Fuel Cell leverages two decades of advancement in Honda fuel cell technology, showcasing significant gains in packaging, interior space, efficiency and real-world performance.”

As a press snippit, that might sound impressive until you dig in to the details and see how little they have actually improved in 20 years (Tesla has only been around for 12 years, for reference).

Image Credit: Kyle Field

Image Credit: Kyle Field

Honda boldly states that “gains in packaging” have been achieved? Let’s see… Honda decreased the size of the fuel cell by 33%. That’s nice, but it does not feel like a technological breakthrough. Interior space has nothing to do with the fuel cell, so that’s not worth talking about here.

Efficiency — at the LA Auto Show last week, Honda stated that the new Clarity will cost “just” $0.20/mile to fuel up. A 20 mpg gasmobile here in Southern California will cost ~$0.17 per mile (using avg fuel price over the last year) or for those who actually pay attention to the mpg rating, a Toyota Prius Hybrid @ 45 mpg comes in at around $0.08 per mile. The nail in the coffin comes when we look at the Nissan Leaf, which is just under $0.04 per mile (at Tier 1 retail electricity pricing here in Southern California, $0.15/kWh).

On top of that, with an electric car, you can install solar panels, geothermal, or a small wind turbine at your residence (assuming they are allowed and make sense) and generate your own “fuel.” For fuel cells, that’s still quite a few years away from being a possibility — or, more realistically, seeing as how there will be direct competition from big oil, it will likely never happen.

Image Credit: Kyle Field

Image Credit: Kyle Field

Real-World Performance — While I have not driven the Clarity, the Toyota Mirai was less than impressive when I took it out for a spin in September, especially when compared to the torque we get in our Mercedes B-Class ED. Looking outward to the interwebs, a test drive by Autoweek crew revealed a similarly blah experience with the same curiosity about the intake noise from the oxygen compressor:

“From what we can tell, driving is positively unremarkable. There’s the sensation of silent thrust you get with an electric car (which, again, is what a fuel-cell vehicle fundamentally is), but we couldn’t shake the feeling that it packed a little less punch than the EV-retrofitted grown-up go-karts we’re used to getting.

Put your foot down on the accelerator and you’ll hear a strange, faint sucking/whooshing coming from somewhere out near the bow; that’s what a fuel cell’s hydrogen intake sounds like, we were told.”


Image Credit: Kyle Field

Switching over to Toyota, it similarly tried to put lipstick on its pig by continuing to talk up its Back to the Future themed Toyota Mirai, which we also covered a few weeks back. Toyota took the theme a step further by adding a Toyota Tacoma — which was also featured in the BTTF films — and attempted to weave hydrogen into the theme as the “fuel of the future.”

Hilariously, Toyota’s Mirai website frames the vehicle up as challenging a cynical mass media that has shot down ideas in the past that ended up revolutionizing personal transportation. The underdog that just hasn’t had a fair shake… but who’s time is just around the corner.


Image Credit: Kyle Field

I have tried to keep an even keel in my approach to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but after the auto show last week, it is painfully obvious that we are still decades away from fuel cell vehicles being viable in the mass market. Even if we do reach the point where they are cost effective to purchase and operate, they still require a massive infrastructure build-out and operate at a MUCH lower total energy efficiency than battery electric vehicles.

Having said all that, they do have that 3-minute fuel-up thing going for them… so there’s that. I’ll leave you with a quick video walk-around of the Mirai from last week’s auto show:

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About the Author

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. TSLA investor.

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