Originally created 09/30/00

Competition drive fuel-cell work



HAGA-MACHI, Japan - Honda Motor Co.'s new experimental car doesn't have the roar of a gasoline engine - or the polluting exhaust. Instead, it purrs with the soft whir of a fan, and only water vapor escapes the tailpipe.

The Japanese automaker showed its FCX-V3 to reporters Friday as part of a project with Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler and other automakers to test a technology of the future: the fuel cell.

Though the automakers won't be sharing fuel cell technology, they will be helping one another cross hurdles such as developing fueling systems, winning public acceptance and studying possibilities for commercial production.

Fuel cells produce energy from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, a clean technology that is expected someday to replace the gasoline engine.

But the technology is not likely to take off for at least another decade, in part because it needs a whole new system of fueling. Gas stations would have to make way for fueling stations for hydrogen.

But all the world's major automakers are rushing to work on fuel cell technology.

Honda showed the FCX-V3 to reporters Friday at a research center north of Tokyo.

The model will be among the more than 50 fuel cell vehicles tested over the next three years under the California Fuel Cell Partnership - a Sacramento-based project of the state of California, automakers, fuel-cell makers and oil companies. A road test there is scheduled for November.

Analysts say the automakers are competing intensely to keep up in a still uncertain technology. So far, observers aren't picking any winners in the fuel cell race.

Honda said its new fuel cell car is quieter, nimbler and lighter than its previous models. It stores the hydrogen in a high-pressure tank in the back of the car, where the trunk normally is.

But having the tank in the trunk could be dangerous in an accident, as hydrogen is volatile. So Honda is working on a safer way to store hydrogen so the tank can be placed where a gas tank usually sits, said Executive Chief Engineer Yozo Kami.

"But with this model, we are getting closer to a commercial product," Mr. Kami said.

Honda acknowledged the fuel cell car needs more work: it doesn't work well in cold weather, and can travel only 110 miles before needing refueling. Another issue is cost: Honda would only say that the cars were still extremely expensive.

Honda has set 2003 for commercial production of fuel cell vehicles.

The company's domestic rival, Toyota Motor Corp., has shown experimental models of its fuel cells and has an agreement with General Motors to exchange fuel cell technology.

Toyota is putting 2003 as the target for a prototype that may lead to commercial production. Ford plans to begin a production program of fuel cell cars by 2004.