Here’s what it’s like to drive a hydrogen-powered car

Contributing Editor
Yahoo Finance
The Honda Clarity runs on hydrogen fuel cells.
The Honda Clarity runs on hydrogen fuel cells.

LOS ANGELES — From the outside and even much of the inside, not much suggests that the fuel-cell version of Honda’s (HMC) Clarity sedan runs on hydrogen instead of gasoline or a battery, but one part of the dashboard display looks just a bit off: the fuel-efficiency readout is labeled in “miles/kg.”

The fuel cap for the Honda Clarity.
The fuel cap for the Honda Clarity.

The reason? The compressed hydrogen gas used in an auto fuel cell is measured by weight, and because a kilogram of hydrogen contains about the same stored energy as a gallon of gasoline, which allows for range comparable to a gas car’s. It also means makes refueling faster than an electric vehicle and leaves only water vapor as “pollution.”

Honda sees those virtues as reasons to bet on fuel cells — which combine hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical process to generate electricity — winning a fraction of the future of the car, even as much of the auto industry has increasingly focused on battery-electric power.

Around the car and behind the wheel

The engine cover for the Honda Clarity. I hope you don’t like working on cars yourself.
The engine cover for the Honda Clarity. I hope you don’t like working on cars yourself.

Fuel cells have been around for decades — NASA used them to generate electricity on the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft beginning in the 1960s, then again onboard the space shuttle. But putting one in a consumer-priced car instead of a $1.7 billion spacecraft has taken more time.

Honda introduced the Clarity in December 2016 as a fuel-cell-only model; it now also comes in battery-electric and plug-in-hybrid models, one of which is my colleague David Pogue’s daily driver. The successor to its earlier, boxier FCX is a four-door, five-passenger sedan that leases for $369 a month from a dozen Honda dealerships in northern and southern California; Honda says more than a thousand are on the road.

It’s easy to miss the burgundy “Fuel Cell” badges, and under the hood the plain top of the fuel-cell stack doesn’t scream “space-program power source here.” The trunk, however, is a lot smaller, thanks to the space taken up by the larger of two cylindrical hydrogen tanks.

Over an hour and 15 minutes on highways and streets from Los Angeles International Airport to Union Station downtown — during which we literally drove past rows of oil rigs, thanks to our trip taking us through Culver City’s Inglewood Oil Field — the Clarity handled like an electric car. That’s because it is, except its electricity comes from a fuel cell, not a battery.

Its electric motor provided the same instant torque and quick starts out of stop lights, and it made the same quiet whir on the road.

Alas, L.A. traffic prevented me from getting much enjoyment out of its “sport mode.” But at least the Clarity’s fuel economy remained excellent. The lowest figure I noticed was 56.8 miles/kg, which translates to 57 mpg, or twice what a gas-powered Accord could manage, and we got into the 60s for a bit.

Putting hydrogen in the tank

With the dashboard indicating 190 miles of range left of an EPA-estimated 366 total, we didn’t need to refuel, but I had to try it anyway. The Clarity’s navigation system includes a shortcut to locate hydrogen stations — the California Fuel Cell Partnership’s site lists a total of 35 in the state, built with some $27 million in state grants — and one was less than two miles from LAX.

The nozzle at the clean, odorless True Zero hydrogen pump set at a corner of an otherwise normal Shell station was cold and showed condensation: Gaseous auto-fuel-cell hydrogen is stored compressed and chilled for more compact storage. I placed it on the metal valve below the Clarity’s fuel-filler cap, clicked a handle to lock it in place, and then the pump used its own sensors to guide the refueling process.

The nozzle for the compressed hydrogen pump is cold to the touch.
The nozzle for the compressed hydrogen pump is cold to the touch.

After a few minutes of hearing hissing and the occasional click, it beeped to say we were done.

Before anybody wants to mention the flaming demise of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg zeppelin: The fueling system is designed to shut off the instant it detects a leak, while the car incorporates its own array of fail-safes. And let’s not forget that gasoline burns too and for longer.

That represents an enormous advantage over battery-electric vehicles. The growing network of Supercharger stations Tesla (TSLA) maintains, for instance, need 30 minutes to provide 170 miles of range. You might as well have lunch in the meantime, while a hydrogen refill barely allows time for coffee.

Honda includes $15,000 worth of hydrogen refueling in the Clarity lease, but I couldn’t resist Honda fuel-cell marketing manager Stephen Ellis’s invitation to put a hydrogen purchase on my expenses. The result: 2.04 kg of hydrogen cost $34.05 — the rough equivalent of $16 a gallon of gas, or $8 if you factor in hydrogen being about twice as efficient as gas. That’s still nearly twice the going rate for gas here.

The Department of Energy aims to bring that price below $4 per gas-gallon-equivalent by 2020. It also plans to make hydrogen production more sustainable by leveraging biofuel technology; today, much of it is generated from natural gas, making it less than sustainable .

As we completed the fueling, another fuel-cell car pulled up behind us: a Toyota Mirai with tinted windows and H20 DRVN license plates. Southern California, don’t ever change.

What about batteries?

Toyota (TM) — with 3,000 Mirai sales in California as of January — has been the other big backer of fuel-cell technology, while much of the rest of the industry has fixed on battery technology. Tesla founder Elon Musk has called fuel cells “silly” and “dumb,” and even optimistic sales projections call for fuel-cell sales to constitute a fraction of battery-electric sales.

A recent Moody’s (MCO) study, for instance, cited objectives set in March 2016 by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — that country is particularly bullish on fuel cells — that calls for fuel-cell cars to constitute 3% of domestic new-car sales by 2030, versus 20% to 30% for battery-electric and plug-in-hybrid vehicles.

But the range-limit and recharge-time issues of batteries aren’t easy problems to solve, nor is poor battery performance in cold weather. And GM (GM) thinks enough of fuel-cell prospects to announce a partnership with Honda last January to produce fuel cells.

Fuel cells almost certainly won’t see the prominence that once led President George W. Bush to tout the promise of a “hydrogen-generated automobile” in a 2004 campaign debate, but the transportation industry has too much room to count out the technology just yet. And while fuel cells face some considerable obstacles, let’s not forget that a lot of people used to say hybrid cars couldn’t compete with gasoline vehicles.

Correction: This post originally indicated the Clarity was introduced in October 2016. It has been corrected

More from Rob:

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.

What to read next