Honda Looks Beyond Hybrids to Hydrogen Cars

By dancurranjr On July 7th, 2009

honda-crzOn paper, Michio Shinohara has few reasons to be cheerful. He works in the car business, the manufacturing sector hardest hit by the downturn. His company, Honda, halted production at its Swindon plant for four months this year and ditched plans for a sexy new NSX sports car. It pulled out of Formula One, only to see its driver, Jenson Button, win race after race for his new team, Brawn.

Yet on a muggy afternoon in Tokyo last month, Shinohara threw back his head and laughed: “It seems that we have been incredibly brilliant.”

The car he launched in February, the petrol-electric Insight, stole the title of best-selling hybrid in Japan from Toyota’s Prius and became Japan’s top-selling vehicle overall in April, the first time a hybrid had topped national sales rankings. More than 1,000 have been sold in Britain, and 5,000 across Europe.

The Insight is so popular that Shinohara, Honda’s head of environment planning, can’t get one himself. “The factory can’t make enough for the orders we already have.”

Petrolheads may mock the Insight’s basic interior and the anaemic performance of its small petrol and electric motors, but Shinohara’s creation is proving to be an ideal product for its time. It’s cheap and green, two qualities car buyers prize more than ever.

“We launched this vehicle at a very lucky time,” he said. “It was not important to us to have the car with top performance. We wanted an eco-friendly car that is accessible to the greatest number of people. Price is key.”

The Insight costs up to 18% less than the Prius, its main rival, and returns similar fuel economy of about 60mpg but the Prius has lower carbon emissions.

Shinohara’s excitement is matched by a sense of relief. The Insight is a car that simply had to work. Although Honda led the way with hybrids — it launched the first, also called Insight, in the late 1990s — it quickly fell behind Toyota. Gawky styling — it looked like an upside-down bathtub — killed the first Insight. A hybrid Accord followed but it failed to sell and was soon scrapped. The hybrid Civic has been a moderate success but Toyota has become the de facto green car brand, thanks to the Prius.

Buoyed by the success of the Insight, Shinohara is leading Honda’s new push into the hybrid market. Next will be a sports car, the CR-Z, due to go on sale next year. New hybrid versions of the Civic and the Jazz will follow.

In a decade, Honda expects to follow Toyota and become the second car company to have a hybrid version of all its models. On sales, however, Honda has fallen so far behind Toyota that it cannot hope to match its rival soon. It expects to sell 250,000 hybrids a year by 2015 and double that by 2020, more than 10% of its current total output. Toyota already sells 400,000 Priuses a year and that figure is expected to rise with the release of new models, including a plug-in version that will extend the car’s electric-only range.

Given the Insight’s success, you would expect Shinohara to be an evangelist for hybrid technology. He regards it, though, as a sticking plaster solution until someone — he hopes it will be him — perfects the hydrogen fuel cell car.

Honda is working up the technology in the FCX Clarity and as Shinohara drove the car around Tokyo, he explained why it, not the Insight, is the future.

Electricity in the Insight comes from a battery that is charged by “recycling” excess energy normally lost during driving, for example when braking. The battery powers an electric motor that works with the car’s 1.3 litre petrol engine, giving it a range of 500 miles.

Carmakers have experimented with vehicles powered entirely by battery but Shinohara said they were “not very customer-friendly” because their range is too short and the battery recharge time too long. A few years ago he tried to persuade Californian motorists to go fully electric with a prototype called the EV Plus, which had a range of about 100 miles. He could hardly give them away. “It was very difficult,” he said. Hydrogen fuel cells are, he believes, the best green car technology because they have the potential to offer the power and range of a conventional petrol engine with water as the only by-product.

The Clarity has several hundred fuel cells creating electricity from an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. It powers the engine. The 171-litre hydrogen tank gives it a range of 300 miles.

A conventional battery-powered car would require a battery weighing two tons to match the range and performance of the Clarity, and it would take hours to charge fully.

The Clarity is undergoing testing in Japan, Europe and America. A few have been released to customers in locations where there are hydrogen refuelling stations, notably California. The actress Jamie Lee Curtis drives one.

Shinohara admitted hydrogen technology is problematic. The Clarity is so expensive to make that it is, for now, sold at a colossal loss. Consumers are “scared” of hydrogen, he said, because it is explosive. It is, at present, expensive to produce and, most importantly, persuading energy companies and governments to construct a network of hydrogen refuelling stations will be a challenge.

Shinohara is undeterred. Honda is experimenting with installing domestic hydrogen stations at homes in California. Natural gas, supplied to the homes using existing pipelines, runs into a converter where it is separated into its various elements, one of which is hydrogen, which can be stored and used as necessary.

Shinohara’s dream is that one day soon motorists will fill the Clarity with hydrogen at home, drive to their remote country cabin emitting no carbon, use the car as a clean generator to power the house, and use the water and steam it produces to make a cappuccino. Truly a car for life.

SOURCE: Times Online

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