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A Week Without Dinosaurs

Honda's Experimental Hydrogen Car Requires Not a Drop of Fossil Fuel. The Technology May One Day Clear Our Skies--and Our Collective Conscience.

August 29, 2004|Dan Neil | Times staff writer Dan Neil last wrote for the magazine on driving a Ferrari in L.A.

An ancient Hindu myth held that the world rides on the back of an elephant. The Iroquois believed it was a turtle. In the age of science, we know different: It's a dinosaur.

Fossil fuel--coal, oil and natural gas, the buried recrudescence of life on Earth, eons in the making--provides most of the world's energy, 85% of the 411 quadrillion BTUs consumed in 2002. As for transportation, with the exception of bicycles and nuclear warships, just about every machine that flies, floats or rolls is powered by petroleum.

And then there is this car: a borrowed Honda FCX, a fuel-cell electric runabout powered by solar-generated hydrogen. For one week, while fellow commuters continue to pour gasoline--that most globally troublesome liquid--down the necks of their cars and trucks, I am above all that. I'm driving pharmaceutical-grade California sunshine: hydrogen generated in an experimental solar-powered station at Honda R&D America's facility in Torrance.

I use no fossil fuel, and I am filled with an efflorescing sanctity. I am greener than thou. As I sit stalled in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway, the skyline undulating in the haze, I have a clear conscience, and a moment of clarity. I have climbed down from the dinosaur's back.

It's been a tough year for car enthusiasts. Way back in 2003, automotive technology was all about who would build the first 1,000-horsepower supercar and whether the automatic parking assist would help Hummer owners bring their monsters in for a landing. Those were good times--before $2.50 per gallon for gasoline, and before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which many suspect is oil adventurism disguised as nation-building. Back then the measure of vehicle technology was miles per hour. Now it's miles per gallon. A cheerless parsimony has descended on us. We have become energy geeks.

In mathematical terms, the system that we hoped was open is, in fact, closed. As of this writing, a barrel of sweet crude is selling for a record $45 and world oil production is running full speed. Tight oil supplies are applying brakes to economic growth at home and abroad. We are teetering on the Hubbert Peak of oil production, named after the geophysicist Dr. M. King Hubbert, who predicted world oil reserves would begin to dry up in the first decade of the 21st century. Asia is consuming about 13 million barrels per day, compared to the U.S. consumption of about 20 million daily. By 2025, Asia's petroleum consumption is expected to triple, and China alone will have more cars and trucks on the road than America.

And the sky is most definitely the limit. Since the Clean Air Act of 1970, vehicle tailpipe emissions in the U.S. have been reduced by 90%, but these gains are being offset by more cars and more driving. Air quality in many cities has actually gotten worse in the past decade, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which estimates the public health cost of transportation-related emissions at more than $40 billion per year.

The more you know, the worse you feel. It's easy to mock the stresses of an affluent, post-industrial life--commuting to work in an air-conditioned car beats our ancestors' half-starved marches across the plains--but we oil consumers know a special kind of suffering. We have learned to internalize a nagging guilt, to cope with the psychic wind shear that comes with hastening to our doom at 80 miles per hour.

This angst is a kind of background noise you might not be aware of unless, like me, you find yourself suddenly outside the problem. Within the first 10 minutes of driving the solar-hydrogen FCX, I have an experience I can only compare to being cured of tinnitus. Suddenly, silence.

Most auto manufacturers have fuel-cell vehicle research programs. Honda's program is indisputably the most advanced. The company's FCX fuel-cell car--the first of its kind to be certified as a zero-emission vehicle by the EPA and CARB--swept last year's Bibendum Challenge competition for fuel-efficient cars. This year, Honda unveiled its own proprietary fuel-stack design (the fuel-cell unit in the test vehicle was built by the Canadian company Ballard). The new unit is 20% more fuel efficient, cheaper to build and more cold resistant (fuel cells tend to ice up in subfreezing weather).

The FCX is unusually robust for a fuel-cell car. When other manufacturers allow journalists to drive their fuel-cell cars, there is usually a minivan full of PhDs following in case something goes wrong. Honda just throws you the keys. Currently five FCXs are leased to the city of Los Angeles for administrators' use, and they receive no more than ordinary care and maintenance.

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