Honda FCX Clarity
Gabriel Bouys  /  AFP - Getty Images
The new Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle is unveiled during the 2007 Los Angeles auto show.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 11/15/2007 12:57:23 PM ET 2007-11-15T17:57:23

With its environmentally friendly focus, the Los Angeles auto show has gained a reputation as a venue where the world’s automakers show off the latest and greatest alternative-fuel ideas.

Now, instead of a pipe dream for car engineers, one of those forward-thinking technologies looks a step closer to widespread adoption.

As the show kicked off this week, Honda unveiled its new FCX Clarity, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The sleek, low-slung sedan — which Honda plans to begin leasing to a limited number of Southern California drivers next summer — is fashioned after a concept vehicle Honda unveiled in 2005. The car will be available on a three-year lease for $600 a month, making it the first fuel-cell car to be offered to the general public.

The Clarity will get an equivalent combined city and highway fuel economy of 68 miles per gallon — twice that of the Honda Accord — and a driving range of 270 miles, according to Dan Bonawitz, head of logistics at American Honda, who added that the fuel-cell car is for drivers “who want to be on the absolute cutting edge of gasoline-free technology.”

For now, those drivers will have to stay in Southern California where they will have access to the limited number of hydrogen fuel stations.

But the introduction of the Clarity represents more than just a cool new alternative-fuel car. Just a few years ago, the idea that a car could run on hydrogen with water as the only tailpipe emission, seemed many years off, observed John Voelcker, automotive editor of IEEE Spectrum, the magazine for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a technical professional organization.

“We’ve got Honda and Chevy starting to put out these advanced-technology vehicles in noticeable numbers now — that’s a big difference from just a few years ago,” Voelcker said. “[Fuel-cell technology] is expensive, and it takes a long time in terms of research and development, but it’s getting real.”

Chevrolet’s parent General Motors said Wednesday it will put 100 hydrogen fuel cell-powered Chevy Equinox compact SUVs on the road in California, New York and Washington, D.C., next year, giving them to hand-picked users. Ultimately, GM says it aims to have vehicles running on hydrogen in showrooms by 2011 or 2012, and expects to ramp up production to about 1 million vehicles a year worldwide after 2012.

“Consider that just a few years ago every fuel-cell vehicle was a multimillion-dollar prospect and each one was hand-built,” said Voelcker. “Now, all of a sudden you’re seeing automakers talk about higher numbers. In its last round, GM had a dozen or so; now they’re putting out about 100. Honda will probably put out that number too, and within a few years you could see thousands, and then tens of thousands, and one day up to a million on the road.”

Ford is still some way behind when it comes to fuel-cell vehicles. President and CEO Alan Mulally says the automaker is at least 10 years from offering a fuel-cell car, in part because Ford is concerned about the safety of the highly flammable lithium-ion batteries used in the vehicles. These batteries, also used in consumer electronics such as laptops, can ignite or explode when exposed to high temperatures.

“We’re not there yet,” Mulally said Wednesday at the Los Angeles show, adding that the prospect of a vehicle that emits nothing but water is “one compelling vision.”

Mulally’s comments came as he unveiled the automaker’s “Blueprint for Sustainability,” a plan to boost the fuel-efficiency of its gas-powered vehicles and aggressively develop a range of alternative-fuel technologies like plug-in hybrids, which can be recharged from the power grid,  and hydrogen fuel cells.

Still, fuel-cell cars have their critics, especially because of the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure.

Honda says it is working to develop a “Home Energy Station” — a device that converts natural gas into hydrogen. As the hydrogen supply infrastructure expands, Honda plans to make a greater number of FCX Clarity vehicles available to the public.

Similarly, Shell recently announced the establishment of a dedicated hydrogen fueling facility in White Plains, N.Y., for the Chevy Equinox test program, called “Project Driveway.”

Despite the obvious obstacles, Honda is committed to taking fuel-cell vehicles mainstream said Tetsuo Iwamura, president and CEO of American Honda.

“The challenges are real, but we are determined to overcome them,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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