Let me share something first: I both love and hate the second Back To The Future movie.
As a kid, watching that film gave me an awesome vision of a future just three decades after 1985. That we would be driving futuristic cars that levitate from the road and make our way onto highways in the skies, all while generating plenty of electricity on a few banana peels and a half-finished can of beer, Zemeckis painted us an image of a pretty awesome concept of the future.
As an adult, however, I hate it because two years after 2015 the vision of that movie is nowhere to be found. Not even close. Apart from a prototype shoe that laces itself up, there are no hoverboards (no, not the rolling kind you bought your kid last Christmas), no self-drying jackets, no production cars that fly, and definitely no Mister Fusion.
It's a bummer, but somehow the car I'm driving is trying to make up for it. No this car doesn't fly, but it is easily the closest production reality to that Hollywood fantasy.
More than a Concept
Honda calls it the Clarity, and it is perhaps the most advanced automobile in their line up. Some will argue that the new NSX, by many yardsticks, is the most awesome car that wears the 'H' on its hood. But the Clarity disagrees... respectfully, of course.
Just looking at it from the sidelines of our little course -a small testing ground right beside the main oval and circuit of the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan- you know it's futuristic. Things like the fascia and the unique rear wheel well are giveaways that this is something special. Any passerby would be forgiven for thinking it's a concept car based on the styling. It wouldn't look out of place on the set of Blade Runner, but no; this is a full on production car that rolls out of Honda's factory in Japan, available for sales (lease, mind you) in some markets.
Mind you, I was surprised that when I did step in, the Clarity's interior wasn't particularly futuristic. If anything, it felt more like an Accord given the space (unusual given the drivetrain), the plushness of the seats, and the appointments like leather, the digital gauges. Yes, it's clear that, with the Clarity, Honda built a true road car, and not an semi-experimental one like before.
But as much as I would like to have had more time to explore the features like the audio system, enjoy the comfort of the seats, and go through every detail of the Clarity, all these are just side dishes to the main course. The Clarity is all about what's under the hood... and the floor.
The Three-pronged Approach
What makes the Clarity special is its purpose: to serve as a platform for the next generation of eco-friendly road propulsion technologies. And that strategy that Honda calls as its Electrification Initiative is three-pronged.
First is the electric version, and it's quite new. The Clarity Electric is a pure battery EV, meaning you charge it at home, at the station or at your place of work, provided that they're equipped with the fast charging stations that can load up 80% of its maximum juice in just 30 minutes. That's quite quick; you can pull up to a station that has a plug-in charging facility, hook up your Clarity's 25.5 kilowatt battery, get a cup of coffee, respond to a few emails, post a status or two, and then off you go with 80% of your battery and range replenished.
The next Clarity is most definitely one of the most practical: the PHEV. Like any modern PHEV, or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Clarity combines the very best qualities of an EV with its ability to be charged, but with the advantage of having a small internal combustion engine as a back up generator or range extender. This is the key model, as it does away with the rather new phenomenon called range anxiety; the fear of running out of battery charge with no charging station nearby. Believe me when I say that range anxiety is real.
The one that we're all looking forward to is undeniably the most advanced, and only one of three models in series production that use the technology: the Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle, or FCV. The model itself was the whole basis of the Clarity line since Honda started experimenting with the technology, debuting initially as a concept, then into a prototype, and then a rather limited release in a few places, and only on lease. But we'll get to this car in a bit.
Run Silent, Run Clean
The test course itself isn't really much; truth be told, we'd rather be on the main circuit or even the oval, but we're driving cars running on alternative means of propulsion, not racing machines. The real question on my mind is whether the drivetrains of tomorrow are viable for the drivers of today, and how -if at all- our driving should evolve to maximize it.
There were two kinds of Claritys available for testing: one is the PHEV version, and the other is the Fuel Cell version. The first on my list was the Clarity PHEV.
This is perhaps the most familiar, especially if you've driven a Prius hybrid. But unlike the one from Toyota, the Clarity PHEV is still very different because the electromotive system is the primary means of drive while the 1.5-liter Atkinson engine is merely there as a range extender and battery charger. This is the principle of a series hybrid (i.e. Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV) with electric motor as the only means of drive as opposed to a parallel hybrid (i.e. Toyota Prius) where drive can be received from both engine and motor. The Clarity PHEV operates primarily as a series hybrid, but can also be driven via the engine under certain conditions.
Confusing, right? Think of it like a basketball team: the electric system is your star player that carries the game most of the time, all while the engine fullfils the role waterboy holding the refreshments (battery charger) and the cheerleader providing moral support (eliminates range anxiety). The engine is also the sixth man, if need be.
I've driven a PHEV before, and I quite like it. From my experience, the sensations of a PHEV as you drive are quite different, but in the Clarity, that's not so. The thing that's most apparent is the noise, or the lack of it. There's almost an eerie silence when the Clarity PHEV does its thing. There is some kind of sound if you're standing beside the Clarity PHEV as it gets going, but it reminds me more of the boot up tone of a Playstation than a car.
Throttle response is better than I had anticipated, and the acceleration pick-up is quite good. That's the result of a key characateristic of an electric motor: it pumps out maximum torque from zero rpm, which is why you can watch YouTube videos of an all-electric saloon that's able sending some modified pony cars back to the stables in shame.
Street races notwithstanding, it was obvious just by a few corners that the Clarity PHEV does have some fun driving dynamics dialled right in. I really can't say that there's much feel from the wheel, but when you turn, it grips, it points, and does it well. Moreover, there was no sensation that the motor was doing some regenerative work by slowing the car down when you lift off the throttle; that's a typical feature of hybrids and EVs to recapture some of that electricity that was used up.
The laps proved short, and the engineer was keen to ask for my opinion on the car. Before I answered I had to ask how heavy the car was because (given the complexity and sheer weight of the drivetrain with an engine, a fuel tank, a motor, batteries, so on and so forth) PHEVs have a tendency to be exceptionally heavy. He said this Clarity PHEV tips the scales at around 1800 kilograms. The other version, the Fuel Cell, even more so: it's almost at 1900 kilos. To put that in perspective, that weight is comparable to a three row SUV like a Fortuner or a Montero Sport. That's some serious weight to lug around yet somehow, the Clarity PHEV manages it like a pro.
The best thing about the Clarity PHEV is its range. Honda gave a conservative estimate that the Clarity PHEV can do 67 kilometers (42 miles) on a full charge, but the EPA upgraded that with their official rating at 75 kilometers (47 miles). And considering that there's the 1.5-liter Atkinson engine as a range extended, the total driving range of the Clarity PHEV is 544 kilometers (340 miles) total, according to the EPA. Excellent, then.
The Next Generation
Now we come to the main event: the Clarity Fuel Cell.
As the name itself makes apparent, this car runs on something called a fuel cell, but while that implies some kind of fossil fuel going boom inside a big metal box to drive pistons up and down, the system couldn't be farther from it. No, the Clarity runs on something called hydrogen.
A hydrogen fuel cell, or more specifically Honda's Proton Electrictrolyte Fuel Cell (PEFC), relies on the chemical reaction of two elements: hydrogen and oxygen. The latter is readily available in the atmosphere, which explains the rather unusual intake noise coming from the front when it powers up (according to the engineer that was seated beside me in the car). The hydrogen is more complex as it has to be pumped in and stored within the vehicle itself. The reaction between the two is harnessed by the fuel cell as electricity, which in turn runs the electric motors.
Some out there may be thinking that running hydrogen inside a vehicle is not really a good idea; the gas itself is volatile and very flammable. Some may even think that this isn't a car that would have had a very successful marketing campaign if it was available during the Cold War. But really, it's safe; and the only byproduct from the “exhaust” is H2O, or water. But we won't drink from the tailpipe just yet.
What Honda is highlighting with the Clarity is its range. With 5.46 kilos of hydrogen stored in a tank rated for 10,000 psi, the Clarity -through the EPA, no less- is officially quoted as having 585 kilometers of range (366 miles).
That's impressive, but the key limitation to the car is its dependence on infrastructure. You can't just pull up to any station and ask for 5.46 kilos of hydrogen just like that, and even if fuel companies are willing to invest in hydrogen stations, the costs are extremely prohibitive. A study by a U.S. government agency states that the capital for Early Commercial hydrogen stations can cost around $2.8 million, while much larger stations could be at around $5.05 million. The question now: is that cost worth it?
If you hopped into the Clarity and drove without really paying attention, there's a good chance that you won't think you're in something so special, or so advanced. And that's a good thing. Apart from the push-button shifter arrangement (like in the new CR-V), the Clarity doesn't overwhelm you. It just moves.
There's a sublime smoothness to the way the Clarity moves, and I like it. I half-expected an unnatural CVT-like noise, but no; the sound from the front matches to the acceleration of the car. It was at this point that the grandfatherly Japanese Honda engineer next to me said I could give it some more. And so I did.
The Clarity does lunge forward when you become more liberal with the drive-by-wire throttle pedal. It's light on its feet from the get go, and the reason is that this is essentially an EV; the fuel cell is just the power source. We can quote its maximum power that is roughly similar to the Civic RS Turbo but, being an EV, what's more important is that the electric motor generates maximum torque of 300 newton meters right at zero RPM. By comparison, the 1.5-liter VTEC Turbo in the RS makes just 220 Newton-meters. The Fuel Cell kicked in, yo.
Still, the Clarity is not a very fast car. Like its PHEV brother, this one is quite heavier, and you can feel it. There's still a good deal of control over the roll when cornering, but the limitations of the technology means that the Clarity has to use a complex and heavy system to move. Thankfully, there's a lighter, stripped-out racecar version of the Clarity Fuel Cell over at the event area, but we'll only get a ride in it.
A Moment of Clarity
We were given a glimpse of the future that Honda has prepared for today. The full EV version of the Clarity was not on hand to be driven, but from the experience behind the wheel of the PHEV and the FC, it shouldn't be too far off.
As much as I appreciate the greatness of the technology in the Clarity FC, conventional wisdom tells me that the PHEV is the way to go, at least for the immediate future. The expense of setting up stations to store and dispense hydrogen is something that the bean counters won't be too thrilled about. The Honda Clarity PHEV, with its ability to be charged at home or filled up with gasoline for the range extender, is something that's more realistic even in the Philippine setting.
Our roads may not see the Clarity (or many other advanced vehicles that run on alternative fuels or electricity for that matter) as official vehicles sold from Honda dealerships anytime soon or even at all, which is a bummer. Even with the yet-to-be-finalized revisions to the tax code (particularly the one on cars) exempting vehicles like the Clarity from increases in excise, the chances are slim to see one of these on Philippine streets.
What's truly important -judging by our day with the Clarity- is the realization that the technology is really and truly available; it's just a matter of applying it in ways that are more readily acceptable and more relevant to a wider audience. Including ours.
We'll have to wait quite a while for the day when we can run most of our power needs on banana peels and used cans of beer, but for now, we can be assured that automakers are working hard to achieve it. Or something close to it.