Honda Launches Hydrogen CR-V: Hydrogen’s Future Still Uncertain After 20 Years

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Honda Launches Hydrogen CR-V: Hydrogen's Future Still Uncertain After 20 Years

Honda’s journey into hydrogen-powered vehicles represents an impressive feat of engineering, showcasing the potential for hydrogen in the transportation sector. However, as a product for everyday consumers, it faces significant challenges. The primary issue is the limited and unreliable hydrogen fueling infrastructure, which is largely confined to California and comes with high costs. Moreover, Honda’s lease-only purchasing model makes it difficult to gauge the true cost of ownership. Despite these hurdles, Honda has consistently stated its commitment to refining hydrogen technology and its role in future mobility solutions.

This narrative spans several models, from the 2002 Honda FCX to the 2008 FCX Clarity, the 2017 Clarity Fuel Cell, and the upcoming 2025 Honda CR-V e:FCEV. Although the models have evolved, the core challenges remain largely unchanged over the past two decades. When the FCX was first introduced and leased to the city of Los Angeles, the idea of a hydrogen-powered vehicle capable of long-range travel was novel and seemed like a promising alternative to traditional fossil fuels, especially at a time when the concept of long-range electric vehicles (EVs) was not yet a reality.

However, the landscape has shifted dramatically. By 2024, the 270-mile range of the CR-V e:FCEV, while respectable, does not stand out among compact electric SUVs, many of which offer similar or better performance without the dependency on a scarce fueling infrastructure. For comparison, Honda’s own Prologue electric SUV boasts a 296-mile range and isn’t limited by geographic fueling constraints.

Honda’s dedication to advancing hydrogen fuel cell technology over the years is commendable, but the practicality and appeal of hydrogen cars have faced increasing scrutiny, especially as electric vehicle technology has matured and become more accessible to the general public.

The CR-V e:FCEV by Honda isn’t your typical plug-in hybrid, diverging significantly from models like the RAV4 Prime, which combines zero-emission urban driving with the option of using gasoline for longer trips or when charging isn’t accessible. Instead, the e:FCEV offers a completely emission-free experience, albeit with its own set of limitations for long-distance travel. Its dual powertrain—comprising a 29-mile full battery range for daily commutes and an additional 240 miles powered by hydrogen—aims to lessen the dependence on hydrogen fuel. This strategy is particularly useful in scenarios where hydrogen stations are scarce or in the event of a fuel supply issue, preventing the vehicle from becoming inoperable.

Honda positions the e:FCEV as a bridge to a future with a more robust hydrogen infrastructure, yet it faces challenges in defining the vehicle’s ideal consumer base. Jay Joseph, vice president of sustainability and business development at American Honda, identifies the target demographic as Californians with access to hydrogen fueling stations. However, the appeal could be broader, potentially attracting residents in major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento who are in search of a zero-emission vehicle with a 300-mile range but prefer not to go fully electric.

Prospective buyers need to be prepared for the current cost of hydrogen fuel, which is considerably higher than traditional gasoline, with hydrogen prices hovering around $35 per kilogram. This pricing translates to about $140 to fill up the CR-V’s tank for a 240-mile range, assuming availability of the fuel. Although hydrogen vehicles often come with free fuel offers to offset initial costs, the market for such a niche product remains small. Honda plans to hand-build the CR-V e:FCEVs in limited quantities, aiming for an annual production of just over 300 units, highlighting the exclusivity and experimental nature of this zero-emission endeavor.

Like its predecessors, the Clarity Fuel Cell and the original FCX models, Honda’s latest hydrogen vehicle, the CR-V e:FCEV, serves more as a showcase for the potential of hydrogen technology than as a mainstream consumer product. This approach targets a small group of enthusiasts willing to lease the vehicle, contributing to the development of hydrogen fuel technology. However, Honda’s broader objective is to demonstrate the possibilities of hydrogen energy and to foster both the supply and demand for retail hydrogen.

Achieving this goal is critical, as Honda has learned from over two decades of experimentation that it cannot single-handedly cultivate a hydrogen market, especially not through light-duty vehicles alone. The company aims to engage a diverse array of stakeholders—including governments, fuel suppliers, industrial clients, and the trucking industry—in the hydrogen movement. For instance, Honda has repurposed Clarity Fuel Cell stacks for a backup generator at its data center and has collaborated with JAXA, Japan’s space agency, to develop hydrogen infrastructure for space applications. Additionally, Honda is exploring hydrogen’s potential in heavy-duty transportation, evidenced by its collaboration with Isuzu on a hydrogen-powered semi-truck prototype in Japan, with plans to introduce a Class 8 truck concept in the U.S. market.

While the possibilities for hydrogen energy are vast, the current economic reality is challenging. Honda has yet to announce pricing for the CR-V e:FCEV, but it is expected to offer a heavily subsidized lease, reminiscent of the Clarity Fuel Cell’s leasing terms introduced in 2017. Such deals highlight the non-profit nature of these ventures, underscoring the automotive industry’s broader challenge in building a sustainable business model around alternative fuels. This situation also reflects a shift in the dynamic between automakers and fueling infrastructure providers, indicating that traditional fuel companies like Shell and Exxon may not automatically support the transition to new energy sources as they have in the past.

The necessity for offering free fuel with hydrogen vehicles stems from the current cost of hydrogen fuel, which is triple Honda’s long-term goal of $12 per kilogram. This price point makes hydrogen-powered vehicles significantly more costly to operate than their gasoline counterparts, even when considering the higher efficiency of hydrogen. Additionally, the larger fuel tanks required for hydrogen storage result in the CR-V e:FCEV sacrificing about a quarter of its cargo space compared to traditional internal combustion engine models.

Honda remains tight-lipped about the production costs of fuel cell vehicles, deflecting inquiries about cost comparisons, profit margins of previous models, or any indicators of progress towards cost parity with traditional vehicles. This reticence was evident during a Q&A session at the e:FCEV launch, where repeated questions on the topic were met with refusal to provide specifics, highlighting the challenges journalists face when covering the development of hydrogen vehicles.

The company acknowledges the existing hurdles but suggests that building the necessary infrastructure isn’t solely their responsibility, though they have committed an undisclosed amount towards the construction of additional fueling stations in the few cities where these vehicles are available. Discussions about the environmental benefits of hydrogen often omit the fact that the majority of hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels. Promises of reduced costs and increased accessibility are made, yet without a clear timeline.

However, it’s clear that hydrogen technology has a path forward, especially in the commercial sector. Transportation experts and industry leaders agree that for heavy-duty and long-haul transportation, a renewable and quickly refillable fuel source is essential to prevent long-term vehicle degradation. Hydrogen offers significant potential in this area, seen as a crucial component of a future zero-emissions ecosystem. Despite the current economic and infrastructure challenges, hydrogen’s role in powering commercial vehicles and contributing to a sustainable transportation future remains promising.

Currently, we inhabit a world where fossil fuels reign supreme—cheap, accessible, and trusted. Despite the growth in electric vehicle (EV) adoption, hesitancy still exists, albeit countered by the undeniable advantage of lower operational costs compared to internal combustion engine vehicles. Hydrogen vehicles, however, have not reached this point of economic advantage, resulting in a classic “chicken and egg” dilemma: the demand and affordability of hydrogen fuel vehicles will not improve without each other’s support. This challenge is somewhat mitigated for EVs by the ubiquitous presence of electricity.

The vision of a future filled with hydrogen-powered trucks and energy storage is plausible, potentially becoming the best option for renewable fuel with high density and quick refueling capabilities—especially if fossil fuels are phased out and hydrogen production becomes environmentally friendly. However, Honda’s early investment in hydrogen technology since the early 2000s may have been premature, given the rapid development and maturity of the electric vehicle industry in the meantime. This early focus on hydrogen could be seen as a missed opportunity, leaving Honda playing catch-up in the EV market.

Honda executives acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding the commercial viability and scaling of hydrogen technology. The future of hydrogen as an economically viable energy source remains unclear, with no definite timeline for when it might achieve widespread adoption. Amidst the speculative discussions and unaddressed questions, one thing is apparent: a hydrogen revolution is not on the immediate horizon, allowing for a focus on the developments and advancements within the electric vehicle sector that are already transforming the automotive landscape.

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