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Test-driving the hydrogen future

We put Honda's hydrogen fuel cell car through its paces in the real world of Manhattan.

December 1, 2005; Posted: 10:46 a.m. EST (1546 GMT)

By Alex Taylor III, contributing writer to Fortune Small Business

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NEW YORK (Fortune Small Business) - The stubby Honda two-door cut through Manhattan traffic like a skateboard. It accelerated smoothly, braked quietly, and-best of all-consumed no gasoline and generated no greenhouse gases. Sticker price: upwards of $1 million.

The car I was driving was the Honda FCX, and it may be the automobile of the future-one especially attractive to business owners hit by rising fuel prices. The FCX is powered by a fuel cell that converts hydrogen gas into electricity. (Fossil fuels are used on a smaller scale to refine and transport the hydrogen.) Unlike clunky, earlier versions, this one drives like a regular production model.

Behind the wheel, the technology is almost transparent. All the controls-accelerator, brake, accessory switches-are identical to those in a typical car. The FCX makes hardly any noise and accelerates smoothly, with none of the gearshifting that you feel in a gas-powered car.

That's because, unlike gasoline engines, electric motors don't require different gears. They can work with "direct drive" which means, basically, just one gear. I felt a decent surge while starting off, though getting to 60 mph takes as long as 13 seconds. Top speed is 93 miles per hour.

Underneath the FCX's aerodynamic exterior is some unusual machinery. Two large tanks between the rear wheels feed hydrogen gas into a fuel-cell stack beneath the passenger area. When oxygen and hydrogen combine in the stack, they create electricity, which powers an 80-horsepower motor under the hood.

A second source of juice comes from a battery-like device in the rear called an ultra-capacitor which stores electricity recovered in coasting and braking. Nothing comes out of the exhaust pipe except water vapor.

Heaven forbid you should run out of fuel, though. The FCX gets 190 miles between hydrogen fill-ups, but there are only 25 refueling stations in the entire U.S., 16 of which are in California.

A full tank-3.75 kilograms of hydrogen-costs about $20. When will fuel-cell cars turn up at your local dealer? Honda isn't saying, though General Motors has promised to have a production-ready fuel cell vehicle by 2010.

Honda is working to get the fuel-cell stacks out of the experimental stage and into mass production Those two big, pressurized fuel tanks are worrisome, but Honda claims that the FCX is as safe as a normal car.

Regardless, it is reassuring to know that the technology is available to free us from dependence on imported oil and asphyxiating ourselves with greenhouse gases. Now if they could just work on that seven-figure sticker price.

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