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Even amid the huge effort now underway to gain market share with new and coming battery electric vehicles, automakers show a continuing interest in keeping the potential of hydrogen vehicles alive. Indeed, the most high-profile players in this space are taking the next steps toward normalizing the way we look at zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, models that drive on electricity generated by an electrochemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen.

One of the advantages of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has been its ability to refuel in five minutes and then deliver 300 or more miles of driving range. That’s about the same amount of time it takes to fill a gas tank, an important baseline. Electric vehicle batteries, on the other hand, typically take many hours to charge. Today’s electric vehicle fast-charging, and the potential for newly-developed extreme fast charging (XFC) technology, could diminish the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle’s rapid refueling advantage.

Still, high-profile players in the auto industry like Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota apparently feel strongly that hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) may play an important part in our driving future. Honda currently leases the Clarity Fuel Cell sedan to California residents living or working in areas where hydrogen fueling stations are available. Hyundai also offers its NEXO hydrogen fuel cell crossover model and Toyota its Mirai fuel cell sedan. Since there are only 47 hydrogen stations in the U.S. with 42 of these in California, it’s really no surprise that all three automakers focus their fuel cell vehicle sales exclusively to limited areas with hydrogen fueling.

Underscoring hydrogen’s continuing momentum, Toyota will shortly release its second generation Mirai sedan. Introduced five years ago as the first fuel cell model offered for sale to retail customers, Toyota’s current Mirai is as notable for its styling as it is for its advanced zero-emission propulsion. Its swoopy, angular, and stylistically forward design does speak ‘future” – which, by the way, is what ‘Mirai’ actually means in Japanese – but that design has been a bit too much for most folks’ taste. The coming, all-new 2021 Mirai changes all that.

As shown by the new model’s concept, the second-generation Mirai is nicely sculpted with smooth-flowing lines, presenting as a stylish mainstream sedan with coupe-like design influences. Evolving from the front-drive first-generation Mirai, it uses a new rear-drive platform with a more rigid body structure that’s longer, lower, and wider than its predecessor, riding on a 114.9-inch wheelbase and featuring a length of 195.8-inches with a 74.2-inch width.

This new design is accompanied by a reimagined interior that’s more spacious and now allows for five passenger seating rather than four. Its multimedia system includes navigation and dynamic audio provided by a JBL sound system with 14 speakers. The Mirai’s handsomely sculpted dash features a 12.3-inch, high resolution TFT touchscreen. Drivetrain advancements are also part of the package. While full details have not yet been disclosed, the 2021 Mirai is expected to feature a more advanced fuel cell system featuring increased performance and up to 30 percent greater driving range. Like the model before it, the new Mirai is capable of filling up its hydrogen tank in just five minutes.

Beyond light-duty vehicles, where hydrogen could become a major transportation fuel is in over-the-road trucks that travel fixed routes, where hydrogen refueling stations are available. While adding larger and heavier batteries to increase the range of personal-use electric vehicles is not a big problem, every pound of battery capacity added to increase the range of commercial trucks means a pound less of payload, impacting the bottom line. Thus, fuel cells could prove to have a large advantage over electric trucks and be appealing in the commercial world.

While adding larger and heavier batteries to increase the range of personal-use electric vehicles is not a big problem, every pound of battery capacity added to increase the range of commercial trucks means a pound less of payload, impacting the bottom line. Thus, fuel cells could prove to have a large advantage over electric trucks and be appealing in the commercial world.

Supporting this notion is Anheuser-Busch, which has ordered up to 800 Nikola Two hydrogen fuel cell semi-tractor trucks for its operations. Two prototypes are already delivering Budweiser beer. On another front, Hyundai and big-rig producer Cummins may jointly develop and commercialize fuel cell powertrains by combining Hyundai’s fuel cell systems with Cummins’ electric powertrain, battery, and control technologies. Toyota and Kenworth are building 10 fuel cell semi tractors for use in and around the Port of Los Angeles and Port Heuneme, California, where decreasing port-related emissions is a significant challenge.

Where is this all leading? Toward the future, of course…one that continues to evolve with an as-yet unknown mix of conventional, electrified, and alternative fuel vehicles being developed by legacy and newly-launched auto and truck manufacturers. Each has its own vision of what our driving future will look like. Time will tell what role hydrogen will play in this unfolding transportation world.

clarity-fuel-cell-pulled-overWe’re behind the wheel of the all-new Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, driving the future while recalling images of the past. That’s because Green Car Journal has been following Honda’s hydrogen fuel cell program now for some 15 years.

During this time there was never a doubt that Honda could achieve its goal in developing a production fuel cell vehicle powered by hydrogen. This automaker already proved it could build and sell another gaseous fuel model – the Civic Natural Gas – that ran as seamlessly as a more conventional gasoline-powered Civic. Hydrogen is just another fuel in gaseous form, right?

2017-honda-clarity-fuel-cell-cabinAh, but hydrogen. This zero-emission fuel is more of a challenge since hydrogen wouldn’t be used in an internal combustion Honda engine, but rather in a fuel cell powerplant to electrochemically create electricity, without combustion or emissions. This electricity would provide energy to power electric motors, no differently than in a battery electric vehicle. Make no mistake that this is a very advanced powertrain technology…a future technology, aimed at today.

There have been many developmental milestones along the way. The Honda FCX developmental vehicle we drove at Sears Point Raceway in 2003 offered proof that Honda was up to the challenge. Testing the FCX Clarity Concept at Laguna Seca Raceway in 2006 showed how quickly Honda’s fuel cell vehicle development could progress in a short time.

2017-honda-clarity-fuel-cell-rear-interiorThe all-new 2017 Clarity Fuel Cell is the finished product, currently available in California at a $369 per month lease that includes up to $15,000 of hydrogen fuel. It features an aerodynamic and stylish design nuanced with futuristic touches like angled rear wheel side skirts and eye-catching LED exterior lighting, combined with a pleasing cabin and significant on-board tech. Its new fuel cell powertrain is substantially evolved from earlier iterations and offers an impressive 366 mile driving range. Importantly, Clarity Fuel Cell delivers satisfying driving dynamics that made us smile during our recent seat time on twisty roads and highways on California’s Central Coast.

Apparently, the future has arrived.

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clarity-fuel-cellGreen Car Journal’s recent drive of Honda’s new Clarity Fuel Cell in Los Angeles delivered what we expect from Honda. Simply, our experience with this sleek and high-tech hydrogen sedan during the Green Car Tour ride-and-drive at GreenBuild 2017 underscored how seamless Honda has made driving a hydrogen powered electric vehicle. Now, others are enjoying the experience as well since the first retail deliveries of Honda’s third-generation Clarity Fuel Cell model have taken place in Southern California. This marks yet another milestone for this automaker as it sets its sights on growing a hydrogen vehicle market.

According to Steve Center, vice-president of American Honda’s Environmental Development Office, this is just the beginning as Honda continues to roll out the new Clarity series of electrified vehicles. Based on an earlier discussion at the LA Auto Show with Honda public relations lead Sage Marie, plus reading between the lines of previous announcements, it’s expected that the present ‘world’ Clarity FCEV will serve as the manufacturing platform for Honda’s electrified lineup including, but not limited to, a plug-in gasoline/electric hybrid, an extended range stand-alone battery EV, and eventually an electrified crossover or SUV offering. While looking at the futuristic body line of this production five-passenger fuel cell electric vehicle, we are in fact also looking at Honda’s near-future autonomous driving design directive.2017 Honda Clarity Fuel CellDictated by low-drag aerodynamics and inspired by the ‘folded wings of a bird,’ the Clarity brings an eye pleasing and futuristic four-door, five-passenger sedan to the world of hydrogen fueled electric cars and SUVs. Clarity begins with specifically compounded low friction tires, aerodynamic wheels, and slip-stream designed roof and side panels engaged to reduce fuel consumption and maximize the power generated through Clarity’s efficient hydrogen fuel cell generator. With a range of 366 miles between fill ups, the Clarity features greater electric-drive range than Tesla’s Model S.

Thanks to Honda’s downsized yet super-efficient hydrogen fuel cell, Clarity also comes to market with greater interior passenger volume and trunk space than Toyota’s hydrogen Mirai. Here, one discovers a minimalist yet rather spacious world of well-balanced, driver-centered features inspired by the executive office work place. A large touchscreen monitor, informative eye-forward gauge cluster, graph bar, and heads-up display intuitively inform the driver. Pleasing leather, hard and soft plastic molded surfaces, a hint of wood, and brushed metals surround driver and passengers. This may in fact be one of the finest-finished interiors in Honda’s stable.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel CellOn the business side, the initial Clarity offering is presently exclusive to Southern California at 12 select Honda dealerships where nearby hydrogen fueling stations are readily available. Among the first lessees are Jon Spallino, private securities investor and the world's first individual fuel cell vehicle customer. Jon began with the 2005 Honda FCX fuel cell vehicle and the new Clarity Fuel Cell is his third hydrogen-powered Honda. Also taking initial delivery were Jack Cusick, assistant principal of Newport Harbor High School; Jackie Keller, founder of NutriFit healthy meal services; Jim Salomon, president at Questar Construction; Karen Thorp, deputy district attorney for the County of Los Angeles; and Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

Clarity may be leased in select markets for $369 per month with $2868 due at signing. Honda provides some enticing incentives including a generous mileage allowance of 20,000 miles per year and a fuel allowance of up to $15,000 in hydrogen fuel. Also provided are an Avis luxury rental car allowance for vacations and other extended trips plus 24/7 roadside assistance.

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Teaming up can be a good thing, especially when the goal at hand involves significant and disruptive change. That’s what is involved in bringing transportation into an envisioned hydrogen age, a  goal for normally petroleum-focused automakers that are working hard toward this zero-emission future. Many automakers have had dynamic hydrogen vehicle development programs in motion for years now, and in some cases decades. Strategic partnering has been a part of this, most notably between auto manufacturers, hydrogen fuel providers, and the federal government

Now, two leading hydrogen vehicle developers – Honda and GM – have agreed to jointly develop next-generation fuel cell systems and hydrogen storage technologies. This partnership will leverage the significant advancements each of the companies has already made in their hydrogen vehicle programs, sharing expertise, common sourcing strategies, and economies of scale. Together they hold more than 1,200 fuel cell patents.

Each automaker has also shown significant progress in putting hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road. GM, for instance, launched its ‘Project Driveway’ fuel cell demonstration fleet in 2007, placing 119 fuel cell vehicles in fleet service and accumulating three million miles along the way. Honda began leasing its FCX fuel cell hatchback in 2002 and then developed its very sophisticated FCX Clarity limited production sedan, which has been leased to select consumers in the U.S.

How this will influence Honda’s plan to launch a successor of its FCX Clarity in the U.S. and Japan in 2015 remains to be seen, or GM’s as-yet unannounced timeline for introducing its first production fuel cell vehicle to the market. What we do know is this new alliance is aiming at creating an advanced and more capable next-generation fuel cell system that will also be more affordable than those available today, plus improved hydrogen storage technologies, with an eye toward the 2020 time frame.