Honda sticks to fuel-cell car target

TOKYO Tue Sep 8, 2009 2:25pm EDT

1 of 3. Honda Motor Co senior chief engineer and project director of the the FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle, Sachito Fujimoto, attends an interview with Reuters journalists in Tokyo September 8, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Caronna

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Honda Motor Co will maintain the target for lease sales of its newest fuel-cell car after over a year since its launch despite the challenge of boosting productivity, the model's chief engineer said.

Honda's FCX Clarity, a sporty-looking fuel-cell sedan, is still a long way from mass production, the key to pushing prices lower, with a total of only 10 cars on the road in the United States and in Japan.

Honda, Japan's second-biggest auto maker, has said it is targeting lease sales of about 200 cars in the first three years in the two countries combined.

It aims to have the cars ready for sale in showrooms by 2015.

Fuel-cell vehicles are widely considered the ultimate longer-term alternative to today's conventional cars as they run on a clean and inexhaustible source of fuel, hydrogen, emit only water vapor and do not compromise driving performance.

Among automakers, Honda and its bigger rival Toyota Motor Corp were the world's first to put vehicles powered by fuel cells -- devices that produce electricity from hydrogen using a chemical reaction -- on the road in December 2002.

Still, the most difficult part is how to raise productivity, in particular for building the core part, fuel cells, as Honda is on the last and toughest part of the road toward commercialization, Sachito Fujimoto, FCX Clarity's chief project manager, said on Tuesday.

"Everyday there's progress," Fujimoto said at the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit.

"We would like to maintain the target (for 200 cars). It's my own dream to make fuel cell vehicles for the ordinary motorist. I would like to make the age of the fuel cell cars begin in earnest as early as possible," he said in an interview.

COMPACT STACK

FCX Clarity's fuel cell stack is in a metal box slightly bigger than a suit case, and are small enough to be located in the aisle between front seats.

The weight is 67 kg and its power capacity of 100 kilowatt is enough to supply electricity to 20 to 25 households.

Fujimoto said platinum and other costly precious metals are used as a catalyst in the stack, an element increasing manufacturing costs of fuel cell vehicles. But that is not the main element, but the lack of mass-production know-how is, he said.

"As for FCX Clarity, the biggest issue is that we cannot make so many stacks," said Fujimoto, who switched his job to the fuel cell vehicle development in 1998 from that of combustion engines.

To make hundreds of cells for a fuel cell stack in a stable manner, for example, requires a deferent type of know-how from car manufacturing, a type similar to that of semiconductor chip making, Fujimoto said.

Asked how far Honda's development process toward the mass production has come, Fujimoto used an example of climbing a mountain to explain.

"The four stages out of the five in total are behind us. We're now at the beginning of the last and the steepest path to the top," he said.

FXC Clarity is almost comparable to the performance of conventional cars as it can run for as many miles and in temperatures as low as 30 degrees Celsius below zero (-22 F).

"The path on return from the top would be crowded with rivals fighting for a bigger slice of the share," he said, adding that automakers in Japan, Europe and the United States are expected to start general sales of the zero-emitting type around 2015.

"I don't think our commencement will lag behind or come much earlier than that year," he said.

"The model on the sale by then would be an advanced rival of FXC Clarity, or something more progressed from FCX Clarity," he said but declined to comment further.

The problem of how to build a wider network of costly hydrogen fuelling stations would be solved if and when fuel cell vehicles are sold and spread, Fujimoto added.

(Additional reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter)

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