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November 2, 2017

Driving the (Silent) Future: the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle

When carmakers release a new fuel cell car, they always assert that it’s no longer a science experiment. Built on a dedicated platform that also spawns a plug-in hybrid and full-on electric vehicle, the Honda Clarity is the one that realizes that hydrogen-powered cars now drive just like a battery-powered electric one. This is future technology, available today. We’ve driven it and it was awesome.

Segueing to a bit of science, a fuel cell vehicle functions much like a battery-electric one, except it produces electricity via a chemical reaction where hydrogen (stored in a compressed state in the car) combines with oxygen (in the air). Electricity is produced continuously as long as fuel (in this case, hydrogen) is supplied. This is different from a battery-electric car which relies on chemicals already stored in the battery. This entire process is done in wafer-like layers called a fuel cell.

Now, the biggest challenge for automakers is how to shrink the size of that fuel cell stack. Honda, which has been dabbling in fuel cell technology for over 20 years has pretty much reduced the size from one that resembles an ice chest to one that’s closer to a carry-on luggage. In addition, efficiency has gone up with the Clarity achieving over 60 percent stack efficiency. In fact, the entire fuel cell assembly—cell stack and motor have now fit under the hood of a car for the first time, taking up roughly the same footprint as a V6 engine.

With a part of our program dedicated to a test drive at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit, mental images of a Civic Type R wailing at full throttle or an NSX hammering a corner crossed everyone’s mind. However, as we approached the entrance of the circuit, we were greeted with an eerie silence. From the frantic hand gesturing of the track marshals, we knew that there were cars on the circuit. But where were they? A white car zoomed by, but it didn’t make a sound. It was like a thief in the night, with the telltale tire rumble the only indication that it was moving. Soon, it was followed by a red one as well. Again, nothing audible. What trickery is this, we thought?

That trickery is pretty much how a fuel cell car drives.

After our names were called, we were given some time to settle in and re-orient ourselves with the Clarity’s cabin. For now, it felt pretty much like typical Honda fare: three LCD screens as gauges, a touchscreen infotainment at the center, and a push-button PRND shifter floating up the transmission tunnel. What’s more, nothing looks out of place. There are no protruding bumps or anything like that to indicate its unique power source. It has five seats, a roomy interior, and respectable trunk space. Of course, Honda’s gone out of their way to give the Clarity some luxurious trimmings such as open-pore wood accents and even Ultrasuede on the dashboard. It looks great, but it’s also environmentally-friendly. Materials with a reduced environmental footprint have been used for nearly 80 percent of the interior surface areas.

Securing our seatbelts, the Honda engineer instructed: press the “Engine Start” button. The gauges lit up and then, nothing. For a few seconds, there were some puzzled looks—did we break the future? Will we be the embarrassment of the entire Philippine delegation? Then, Mr. Engineer looked at us and said, “Go, go, go.” Gingerly applying the throttle, the car moved, and we went.

The car did make a pleasant melody, but it was more to warn pedestrians and cyclists that a silent car is rolling off near them. After the chime died down, it was the sound of near silence. There’s a slight fan-like whirring sound, but only because the Clarity uses an electrically-driven turbo air compressor to feed oxygen into the fuel cell. Aside from that, it’s the just the sound from the tires and the non-stop instructions from Mr. Engineer.

Apparently, since a fuel cell takes a few seconds to get to peak generation, the Clarity FCV also has a small lithium-ion battery pack that acts as an energy buffer. It’s the secret to this car’s admirable performance and though it can eat through its power reserves in less than half a minute, the fuel cell would have taken over by then. Regenerative braking then feeds the battery once more keeping it topped up.

Otherwise, the Clarity FCV drives similarly to something like an Accord. The steering and brakes are precise, and the body motions controlled. For sure, it feels a bit nose heavy through the tighter bends, but again, it’s somewhat typical of its size and girth.

Though our laps around Twin Ring Motegi were capped at 60 km/h, Mr. Engineer was getting a bit impatient (we were the second to the last in our group), so he told us to press the Sport mode and gun it. And gun it we did. The accelerator response felt shaper, but it was the same eerie silence around the track, except perhaps for a tire screech or two. The regenerative braking is supposed to be more aggressive under this mode, but we were too busy wrestling this car to notice.

We were also too busy shuffling around the different activities to actually notice the Clarity’s styling. It’s somewhat polarizing, but it’s also equally futuristic and different. If we were to imagine what a 2025 Accord would look like, the Clarity probably won’t be that far off.

With hydrogen filling stations remaining a niche in our fossil fuel world, we can’t predict whether fuel cell vehicles will go down as a failed experiment or will signal the start of a sea of change. While the world decides on the fate of hydrogen fuel, at the then and now, the Honda Clarity brings forth a, pardon the pun, a clear vision of a clean future. We may take regularity for granted, but the Clarity wears it proudly on its sleeve. It feels less of a science experiment and more of a regular car that beamed in from tomorrow.

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