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Honda to debut hydrogen fuel-cell car in 2008

FCX to move beyond teen-actress customer base

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Honda yesterday laid out its future green motoring technology strategy for the world's media with announcements and demonstrations in Washington DC.

The only piece of mainstream kit in the near future will be a new hybrid car, to go on sale in the USA within two years priced below the current Honda Civic hybrid variant, which goes for $25,000. The Civic hybrid hasn't achieved sales to match Toyota's groundbreaking Prius: Honda believes this may be because it doesn't look visibly different to the ordinary Civic. The theory is that green motorists like to be seen to be green, and to that end the new hybrid will have unique styling.

Hybrid cars still derive their power from burning conventional fuel, though they get by on less than conventional motors. They don't reduce carbon emissions or dependence on overseas oil supplies in any radical way, though they do achieve impressive reductions in urban air pollution.

But Honda, in common with some other big manufacturers, is looking beyond the hydrocarbon/carbohydrate era. The firm aspires in the longer term to offer mass-market vehicles which run on hydrogen. Honda's chosen route to this goal is fuel-cell technology, in which hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen become waste water and electric power. The power output is typically quite low, but a lithium-ion battery allows a vehicle to accelerate and climb hills by storing unused energy from braking, coasting, and periods sitting still - much as a hybrid does today.

Honda has had FCX fuel-cell demonstrator cars on American roads for some years now. There are currently about 20 in operation, mostly run by organisation fleets, but two are leased by individuals at $500/month. This is a loss-leader and publicity effort by Honda; the cars currently cost far too much for such a deal to make money. One of the private drivers is teenage actress Q'orianka Kilcher, noted for her turn as Pocahontas opposite Colin Farrell in the 2005 flick The New World.

However, Honda now intends to put a third-generation FCX into low-rate production from 2008 and lease it to an unspecified number of individuals in the US and Japan ("many, many more", apparently). The new FCX will be roomier, as the power plant and battery have been reduced in size. It will also feature "seat upholstery and door linings made from Honda Bio Fabric, a plant-based material that offers outstanding durability and resistance to sunlight damage".

The big snag for FCX drivers will be filling up with hydrogen. There is only one hydrogen station in DC and a handful more in California. With the FCX predicted to achieve no more than 270 miles on a tank of hydrogen, that could limit the customer base and usefulness. However, Honda says it is working with Shell, Chevron, and BP on this. Furthermore, the firm intends to produce a "home energy centre" which will use domestic natural gas to produce both hydrogen for the car and electricity to supplement the domestic mains supply. This won't be ready in time for the new FCX launch, though.

Electric cars such as the Tesla Roadster and straight-hydrogen vehicles like BMW's Hydrogen Seven may have some competition on their hands. ®

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