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Designer Spotlight: Honda's FCX Clarity

It’s not often that “cars” and “sustainable design” get mentioned in the same breath, but we think Honda’s new FCX Clarity is worth the exception. It’s their first production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, based on the FCX Concept (which we mentioned before [www.sundance.tv]), and, in a couple ways, represents a significant step forward in design and in transportation.

California’s proposed Hydrogen Highway may still be in its infancy, but starting next year Southern Californians will be able to lease the FCX Clarity [automobiles.honda.com], touted as aa full-fledged production fuel cell vehicle. The announcement came at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show [www.nytimes.com], where all the big automakers have unveiled their latest eco-models, including Chevy’s new Tahoe Hybrid SUV, which just won Green Car of the Year. The Hybrid Tahoe is indicative of a general trend toward hybrid and flexfuel vehicles, and away from the greatly hyped hydrogen fuel cell car. Movies like “Who Killed the Electric Car” and negative press coverage, combined with the Big Three’s reluctance to embrace the technology, had led many to believe hydrogen was a dead end.

Green Car Congress [www.greencarcongress.com] has all the stats on the design and engineering feats included in this sizable achievement, including 68 mpgge (miles per gallon gasoline equivalent) and a range of 270 miles. Honda has been moving forward with fuel cell technology ever since they debuted the FCX back in 2002, despite the lack of fueling stations and questions about the environmental implications of hydrogen production. They have steadily tweaked and improved the vehicle; the big breakthrough seems to be in the 45% smaller powertrain,which frees up space for the larger hydrogen tank and battery pack, and increases the power-to-weight ratio by 25%. It is still unclear how many Clarities will be manufactured in 2008, but they will only be leased for three years to certain customers in Southern California, at a cost of $600 per month.

Like many significant achievements in design, the simple fact that the Clarity now exists is its most notable accomplishment; arguments about the efficacy of hydrogen in the global economy aside, it proves that the way that cars (in this case) are designed can make a difference: when you drive a Clarity, you are emitting a grand total of zero carbon emissions. No need to worry about capturing and sequestering it, and no need to buy carbon offsets for your driving; there is nothing to worry about coming out the tailpipe. Scale that up to a city (or even a state, as California plans to do) and that’s a meaningful accomplishment. So, will hydrogen cars save the world? Not by themselves, and, while producing hydrogen is still tricky [www.nytimes.com] from an environmental standpoint, the Clarity stands as proof that design, even in automobiles, can help change the world.