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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.

driving-ridgeline-on-trailLong-term tests allow really getting to know a vehicle, and the 2017 Honda Ridgeline in our test fleet is no exception. We’ve spent some 5,000 miles behind the wheel now under varying driving conditions. Plenty of these miles have been in city driving with commuting duty and road trips thrown in for good measure.

We have enjoyed all those miles. The Ridgeline’s efficient i-VTEC 3.5-liter V-6 benefits from direct-injection and variable-cylinder management to increase efficiency, making 280 horsepower along the way. This provides all the performance we’ve demanded from the pickup and it’s never left us wanting for more.

honda-ridgeline-front-image-1Honda provides an option to enhance fuel economy by activating the Ridgeline’s ECON button, although this does diminish performance somewhat and also scales back some other systems in its mission to increase efficiency. The front-wheel drive 2017 Ridgeline is EPA rated at 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, with a combined estimate of 22 mpg. Our Ridgeline Black Edition is an AWD model and sacrifices a bit of efficiency for the capability, offering an EPA estimated 18 city and 25 highway mpg, with a combined average of 21 mpg. Overall, with our combination of city and highway driving we have been averaging combined fuel economy of 20.9 mpg.

We’ll trade the AWD variant’s 1 mpg loss for the additional traction and functionality, though. While we haven’t had the occasion to ford streams or slog through snow, we have spent time traversing dusty ranch roads and occasional wet pavement, and we do appreciate the extra bit of confidence that AWD delivers.

driving-honda-ridgelineSeating in the Ridgeline gets high marks. The pickup’s front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. In the rear, we’re big fans of the split and fold-up seats that make this truck even more functional with their ability to reconfigure for people and gear as needed. Even with the seats down, there’s extra space beneath the seats for stowing gear. Plus, of course there’s the Ridgeline’s  53-inch pickup bed and unique tailgate that either drops down or swings out for easy access.

And did we mention our Ridgeline’s truck bed audio system? Those into tailgating will find this system fascinating. Honda has made the pickup bed’s side panels act as speaker baffles to produce some pretty quality sounds. Plus, Honda has built in another handy feature in the pickup box, in the form of a lockable trunk in the bed floor. After months of everyday driving in our Ridgeline tester, it’s hard to imagine how we could do without this handy trunk feature…or for that matter, how other competitive pickup owners could do without one as well.

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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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2017-honda-hrv-front-1The advantage of a year-long test vehicle is that we’re better able to sample how it performs under all types of road and weather conditions, plus the sometimes challenging situations that life throws at everyone. In hilly Southeastern Ohio on the edge of the Appalachian range, our long term Honda HR-V conquered snow and ice covered roads with sure-footed traction, with its all-wheel drive system and traction control finding grip when grip was hard to find. Honda’s excellent anti-lock brake system delivered above average stopping power when the road surface was slippery. Combined with linear and positive steering response, those qualities provide for a very confidence inspiring winter driving experience.

Winter conditions can take a toll on fuel economy. The worst winter mpg we achieved was around 28 mpg and we were able to push efficiency into the mid to upper 30s with relative ease. Honda’s intuitive ECO Coaching system helps the process along with visual cues that change color with throttle position and speed.

2016 Honda HR-VThe HR-V’s interior makes longer road trips quite comfortable. With the front seats all the way aft to accommodate my 6 foot, 2 inch frame, rear seat leg room is a bit compromised, but that’s to be expected in any compact SUV. In addition to its 60/40 split seat folding design and ability to deliver a flat cargo floor, the Honda’s Magic Seat configuration allows the bottom seat cushions to fold up out of the way to handle taller cargo.

Driving any compact SUV can be an education since not all competitive models achieve the high standards SUV drivers expect in comfort, performance, functionality, and convenience. Our 10,000 mile experience with Honda’s HR-V has scored high marks in all subjects and has definitely made our Dean’s List at the end of its freshman year.

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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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2016-honda-hrv-34-frontWe’ve been driving our 2016 Honda HR-V long-term test car for just over six months now and have enjoyed our daily experiences with this ‘right-size’ crossover vehicle. Based on the Honda Fit platform, the HR-V won top honors in last year’s 2016 Green SUV of the Year™ program. It impresses for a wide variety of important reasons, not the least of which is its ability to do its job extremely well – and might we add very efficiently – without the need for exotic powertrain technology.

The HR-V is propelled by a 1.8-liter, 140 horsepower four-cylinder that provides an admirable balance of performance and economy, as we’ve come to expect from Honda over the years. This i-VTEC 16-valve engine delivers power through a CVT automatic transmission that’s standard on all-wheel drive model like our HR-V EX-L Navi AWD tester. Unlike many constant velocity transmissions, the CVT in the HR-V has a pleasingly positive feel under both acceleration and braking. To further enhance the driving experience, the HR-V can be switched to Sport Mode, with dual paddle shifters providing more control over the CVT. A six-speed manual transmission is standard fare on front-drive variants with the CVT optional.

2016-honda-hrv-engine-1When introduced, the two-wheel drive CVT model scored an EPA fuel economy rating of 28 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway, with the AWD version netting a slightly lower EPA mpg rating of 27 city and 32 highway mpg. With our typical efficient driving style we’ve found that we can regularly achieve average fuel economy of 32 mpg. During economical cruising on the highway, the HRV can easily be coaxed into the mid- to upper-30 mpg range.

For those who would like a little help with efficient driving, Honda has incorporated its Eco-Assist technology into the HR-V. Pushing the green ECON button on the dash programs the engine and transmission computer controls to operate at peak efficiency. A visual aide around the speedometer changes color to serve as an alert to indicate when the HR-V is being driven economically. Green is very efficient, light green is good, and white not so good, the latter typically displayed under conditions like hard acceleration.

2016-honda-hrv-cabin-1Considering the HR-V’s compact exterior dimensions, interior space is impressive, particularly in the rear cargo area. With the rear seats folded flat it can swallow up nearly 59 cubic feet of gear, while offering the versatility of Honda’s fold-up rear bottom seat cushions for carrying taller items.

It’s common for most vehicles to offer a split folding rear seat these days, but Honda has taken rear seat versatility a step further with its innovative Magic Seat in the HR-V. In its basic form it functions as a 60/40 split bench that can be folded flat for longer cargo. The Magic Seat, however, can also accommodate taller cargo upright by folding the seat bottom up against the seat back for maximum vertical room. Beyond interior innovations like this, we are also impressed with the overall fit and finish found throughout the HR-V.

2017 Honda HR-VMost surprising is the way the HR-V adapts to everyday life. It is unassuming and friendly for those days when you just require transportation, yet fun to drive when you want to really take control and enjoy the driving experience. When driving gets a little more spirited, the HR-V’s solid feel, steering response, and braking performance instills confidence on the road. It accomplishes this without compromising comfort and ride characteristics. This is a vehicle you can drive cross-country with minimal fatigue.

With just over 7,000 enjoyable miles now on the odometer, we’ve found our long-term HR-V compact crossover fulfilling so many missions well, we just can’t imagine life without this in our test fleet. We’re looking forward to many more miles behind the wheel of Honda’s award-winning Honda HR-V. We’ll follow up a bit down the road with some Midwest cold and winter weather performance with the HR-V’s all-wheel-drive system.

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Volvo Car Group initiates world unique Swedish pilot project witWe are heading toward self-driving cars quicker than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. While it will clearly be some time before our highways are packed with driverless cars making their way to work, home, and parts beyond, there are glimpses of the future driving alongside us now.

It may be the Honda Civic self-aligned in the fast lane beside you, or the Ford Fusion Energi in your rear view mirror that stopped without driver assistance as traffic ground to a halt, then automatically paced your car as your lane began moving again. Or maybe the driver of the nearby Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid who misjudged how quickly traffic would stop, but escaped incident because of on-board systems that sensed a collision and automatically initiated emergency braking. And what about that Tesla Model S ahead that signaled and changed lanes seemingly on its own as its driver focused on something else?

autopilotThese are real capabilities of vehicles on the road today. Not all models with autonomous technologies are ‘green’ cars, but assuredly many of them will be since there’s a natural convergence of autonomous driving technology and more efficient cars unfolding before us. This is only gathering momentum as a growing number of vehicles begin to feature systems like these.

Already, cars are increasingly equipped with an array of sensors, radar, and cameras to facilitate driver assistance systems that help deal with mundane chores like backing up safely and parallel parking. These same sensors and systems provide a foundation for even more sophisticated autonomous driving capabilities.

360° Surround viewSeveral automakers are striving mightily to lead the field. Tesla is one of these, not only with the ability for its Model S to autonomously stay in its lane and with traffic flow, but automatically and safely change lanes with the flick of a turn signal when Autosteer is engaged. Cadillac is another with its upcoming Super Cruise.

Volvo is also at the forefront of this race to an autonomous driving future, in part because autonomous cars are considered much safer ‘drivers’ than humans and this aligns well with Volvo’s ambitious goal to eliminate traffic fatalities in its vehicles by 2020. Its XC90 plug-in hybrid already features some of the most advanced autonomous systems out there including Sensus Connect, Intersection Auto Brake, and Pilot Assist. Volvo has also created its Concept 26 autonomous driving interior for the XC90, the first such autonomous-focused concept interior built on a vehicle platform sold today. Volvo is taking a lead role in the world’s first large-scale autonomous driving pilot project that will find 100 self-driving Volvos negotiating everyday driving tasks on 30 miles of public roads around Gothenburg, Sweden.

VOLVO CAR GROUP LANCE UN PROJET UNIQUE AU MONDE DE VOITURES A COThe specter of life with self-driving cars presents its challenges, not the least of which is consumer distrust of such systems and the concern we will lose the driving enjoyment and sense of freedom that automobiles have brought us since their invention. While we may be in a new era that finds technology impacting most facets of daily life – with this technology increasingly making its way to our cars – the love of driving remains a priority for many.

This is supported by a recent Volvo survey in which a vast majority of those asked said autonomous car technology should respect the love of driving and, in fact, autonomous cars should include a steering wheel even if they are capable of driving themselves. At the same time, most felt that technology in autonomous cars would make their travel time more productive. In other words, we want these worlds to coexist. There’s a lot to read into that …perhaps from the driver’s seat at 65 mph, no?

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Long-term tests provide a great way to learn what it's like to live with a vehicle on a daily basis. Our time with a fully-loaded,  2014 Accord Hybrid Touring proved enlightening over more than a year's worth of commuting, running errands, and road trips. This 50 mpg sedan, a high-profile offering within Honda’s Accord lineup that won Green Car Journal’s 2014 Green Car of the Year® award, is sleek, stylish, and sophisticated in an unassuming way. It’s also packed with desired technology. While we won't see a plug-in hybrid back in the Honda Accord line until the 2017 model year, here are our thoughts on its predecessor. No doubt, the new generation Accord plug-in will be even better.

Unique design features distinguish this Accord Hybrid from the already-pleasingly aggressive style of the standard Accord, which was introduced as an all-new model in 2014. These include LED daytime running lights and blue-accents on front light lenses, grille, and rear LED tail lamps, plus a decklid spoiler and unique wheels. Our tester is further distinguished with a dealer-installed Honda aero package with front, rear, and aide underbody spoilers. We were amused when we first drove our stealthy-black Accord Hybrid test car to a local restaurant and drew appreciative gazes from patrons, with one asking, ‘Is that a new Mercedes?” Nope, a Honda…a really, really cool one.

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Power is supplied by Honda’s Two-Motor Hybrid Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD) system, a mouthful-of-a-name that earns its ‘intelligent’ designation. The 196 horsepower hybrid system achieves optimum efficiency through intelligent and seamless transitions between all-electric drive, internal combustion drive, and hybrid drive depending on driving circumstances.

We’ve found the hybrid sedan to be responsive and confident on the road during our drives through the twisty canyons along California’s Central Coast. There’s always ample power at the ready, delivered through a capable electric continuously variable transmission (E-CVT). Eco mode can be selected to tone down performance a bit to enhance fuel efficiency. The Accord Hybrid’s regenerative braking system feeds electricity back to the car’s lithium-ion batteries immediately upon lifting off the accelerator, rather than starting when braking is applied.

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All this brings a very impressive 50 mpg city fuel economy rating and 45 mpg on the highway. With the Accord’s 12.2 gallon fuel tank, filling up always shows a whopping miles-to-empty read of well over 600 miles. This considerable driving range has come in handy many times during extended road trips, including a trek from our offices on the Central Coast to San Diego and back on a single tank.

These drives are often made with the Accord’s adaptive cruise control engaged, a feature that automatically keeps a safe driving distance from the car ahead. It works seamlessly in adapting to traffic speed and flow and is actually quite amazing. Drives are smooth and comfortable both on the open road and in traffic.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid

Time spent in the Accord Hybrid Touring’s accommodating cabin comes with an immersion of advanced electronics complemented by an 8-inch multi-information display and an audio touch screen compatible with smart phone features. Its electronics user interface is easy to use and driver assistive technologies invaluable, including Forward Collision Warning, Lane Departure Warning, and rear view camera with LaneWatch blind spot display.

So here’s the bottom line after 15,000 miles behind the wheel of the Accord Hybrid: Great styling, a bevy of advanced electronics, a quiet and accommodating cabin, and impressive efficiency – all wrapped in an aggressively handsome package – have made the award-winning Accord Hybrid a joy to drive and one of our favorites for quick jaunts and road trips alike.

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Honda FCEV ConceptHonda has been an industry leader in developing and deploying fuel cell vehicles for nearly two decades. The Honda FCX was the world’s first production fuel cell vehicle when it was introduced to the U.S. and Japan in December 2002. This was followed by the second generation

FCX Clarity in 2008, the first dedicated production fuel cell vehicle. Honda plans to offer its next-generation fuel cell vehicle in the U.S. and Japan in 2015, followed by Europe.

Honda FCEV Concept

The sleekly-styled Honda FCEV Concept sports an ultra-aerodynamic body unlike anything on the road today. While Honda says its extreme styling may not make it into production, the concept does express a potential styling direction for fuel-cell vehicles in the coming years.

Inside, the Honda FCEV Concept provides ample seating for five thanks to new powertrain packaging efficiencies, which include the world’s first application of a fuel cell powertrain integrated completely within the engine compartment. The fuel-cell stack has an output of over 100 kilowatts with a power density of 3 kilowatts per liter, a 60 percent improvement from previous iterations. The stack size was reduced by a third compared to the FCX Clarity. This new fuel cell technology has the potential to be used in multiple vehicle types in the future.

Honda FCEV Concept

The next generation Honda FCEV is anticipated to deliver a driving range of more than 300 miles, about 60 miles more than the FXC Clarity. Fueling can be handled in about three minutes.

Since the nation’s hydrogen refueling infrastructure remains sparse and is still a major challenge for fuel cell vehicles, Honda has joined with the public-private partnership H2USA to coordinate research and identify cost-effective solutions for delivering affordable, clean hydrogen fuel in the U.S. Honda also entered into a long-term collaborative agreement with General Motors earlier this year to co-develop next-generation fuel-cell systems and hydrogen storage technologies, aiming for the 2020 time frame.

2014 Honda Accord EX-L V-6 SedanThere are two basic ways to maximum mpg – have a fuel efficient vehicle and drive your vehicle efficiently. Honda’s Eco Assist does both. Eco Assist, short for ‘Ecological Drive Assist System,’ performs two basic functions. First, there is a sophisticated feedback system that coaches drivers to drive more efficiently. In addition there’s an ECON button that optimizes the vehicle’s operation to maximize fuel efficiency. The system debuted on the Honda Insight hybrid in 2009 and Honda has expanded availability to other Honda models including the Civic, CR-V, and Accord.

Eco Assist helps drivers develop driving habits that enhance fuel efficiency by providing feedback via color-changing displays, typically integrated in the speedometer, that indicate fuel efficiency in real time. Fuel-saving behaviors like smooth acceleration and braking cause the display to glow green. Somewhat less fuel-efficient driving habits glow blue-green. Aggressive starts and stops that consume extra fuel cause the display to glow blue. By striving to keep the display in the green, drivers receive help in developing driving habits that improve fuel economy.

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Pressing the green dash-mounted ‘ECON’ button optimizes operation of the transmission, engine, and other powertrain components to help conserve additional fuel. For example, a gentler throttle pedal setting limits power and torque by a small amount. Also, air conditioning is set to consume less energy by operating more in the recirculation mode or reducing the speed of the automatic climate control blower. On hybrid vehicles, the Idle Stop feature might be engaged sooner, the CVT (continuously variable transmission) further optimized, and battery charging during regenerative braking increased.

Drivers of Honda hybrids are provided additional feedback about cumulative, long-term driving style via a Multi-Information Display (MID). This includes fuel economy figures for the past three trips, as well as instantaneous and average fuel economy statistics. The goal is to encourage drivers to take an interest in developing fuel efficient driving habits over the long term. Here, ‘green’ driving styles are rewarded by the number of leaves displayed in the instrument cluster, indicating the level of environmentally responsible driving performance. With the ignition switch on, the display scores driving practices in real time. When the ignition switch is turned off the leaves score driving in the just-completed cycle (startup to shutdown), while a horizontal bar in the lower part of the display scores cumulative lifetime driving performance.

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Eco Assist combines multiple functions – the driver-activated ECON mode that optimizes control of the continuously variable transmission, engine, and related powertrain components to conserve fuel, plus the scoring function. The latter provides cumulative, long-term feedback through the graphic leaves that grow over time as drivers learn and implement driving practices that increase fuel economy.

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.

Honda has developed a new lightweight and compact one-motor hybrid system that’s optimized for small vehicles. The Sport Hybrid Intelligent Dual Clutch Drive system is the latest addition to Honda’s Earth Dreams Technology suite of  next-generation powertrain technologies that aims at both high fuel efficiency and driving performance.

This new system joins the two-motor Sport Hybrid Intelligent Multi Mode Drive hybrid system for mid-sized vehicles and the three-motor Sport Hybrid SH-AWD (Super Handling - All Wheel Drive) system for large vehicles. The two-motor system will be introduced in the 2014 Accord Plug-In.

The drive unit of the Sport hybrid intelligent Dual Clutch Drive system combines a four-cylinder, 1.5-liter Atkinson cycle engine with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. Its high-output motor and lithium-ion battery improve efficiency by more than 30 percent compared to conventional one-motor hybrid systems. Using the clutches to disengage the engine during deceleration increases energy regeneration and also contributes to greater fuel efficiency.

Honda says that the combination of the one-motor hybrid system and the engine provides sporty driving during acceleration and high-speed cruising. Efficient battery electric operation is enabled during startup and low- to medium-speed driving.

 

The opportunity to drive an array of electric cars back in the 1990s was enlightening on many levels, bringing home the realization that for many these cars were less than purposeful daily drivers. From my perspective, they were fun but also impractical for my longer driving needs. And as for their performance, well…good for electric cars but not so much compared to fun-to-drive, conventionally-powered competitors.

Segue to today and an opportunity to drive Honda’s new Fit EV. This electric car cuts a nice profile with its super-small exterior and provides a good amount of room for four inside. The new electric version is nearly identical in design to the gas powered edition with some slight modifications, including closing up the front air intake since it’s no longer required for engine cooling, plus some other subtle changes that only EV enthusiasts might spot. While early prototypes had huge ‘EV’ stickers on the flanks, our vehicles did not. Thank you for that, Honda.

The standard Fit has decent around-town handling and simple-to-operate controls, making it the perfect wrapper for Honda’s latest electric car content. Power is supplied by a 123 horsepower electric motor generating 188 lb.-ft. torque. The Fit EV is rated by EPA at a mile-per-gallon-equivalency of 118 MPGe.

Inside, the EV instrumentation is pleasantly direct without the standard video game styling that often overwhelms a driver in cars with this level of forward-thinking electronics. Among the controls of note here are those for the Fit EV’s three driving modes and a battery detente in the center mounted shifter that, when selected, increases regenerative braking during coast-down.

Each driving mode is indicated by color-keyed illumination within the instrument panel that changes from green for economy to white for normal and red for sport. The mode selected affects performance and the amount of battery power available for driving range. During our drive the least amount of range was achieved in the performance mode with the most in economy mode, as expected.

The Fit EV is a highly capable vehicle that comfortably transports four adults. Handling is surprisingly good for a car equipped with 20 kWh worth of lithium-ion batteries. It cut neatly through a Honda-staged slalom and braking course, exhibiting an ability to confidently handle transients faster than most drivers will require in the real world. Steering input is predictable and braking excellent. Frankly, it’s surprising how well the Fit EV handles when pushed to discover its limits, allowing induced oversteer when requested and plenty of squealing tires with a stab of the throttle in the sport mode. Transitioning to drives on Pasadena city streets replete with hills and curves was pleasant and uneventful.

Those interested in Honda’s new Fit EV will find this electric available at a monthly lease cost of $369 for 39 months with no money down, starting in select markets in California and Oregon. The Fit EV is not available for purchase, an oddity that harkens back to the electric vehicle test marketing days of the 1990s when lease-only arrangements were status-quo.

With its good looks, snappy EV performance, and three-hour recharge time on a 240-volt system, the Fit EV should be popular with today’s electric car enthusiasts and mesh well with many lifestyles. It’s capable of covering 82 zero-emission miles per charge by EPA estimates – and in real-life driving, certainly more – and does this without compromising on the looks and driving fun that’s important to so many of us. It could be, for many, the perfect fit.