A “garnet-red teardrop falling from the cheek of the future…”

Dan Neil won the Pulitzer in 2004 for his automotive column in the L.A. Times, and you can see why in his piece earlier this year about Honda’s hydrogen car, the FCX Clarity. A colleague shared it with me today, and I just had to share it with y’all — both in the interests of promoting talk about hydrogen and alternative fuels, and just to celebrate the words. A sample:

Perhaps obscured by questions of practicality and cost is the fact — and it is a fact — that the FCX Clarity is the most beautiful car to ever wear the big H on the nose. It’s just gorgeous, a big garnet-red teardrop falling from the cheek of the future, a sweet stanza of robot-written poetry.

You might be able to infer from that passage that Mr. Neil was essentially trashing the practicality of hydrogen elsewhere in his piece. His objections ranged from the general — the energy cost of producing hydrogen to start with — to the specific, which in this case involves pointing out that each one of these little beauties costs Honda $2 million to make. He reckons that a large part of Honda’s motivation is simply to reach California’s quota for emission-free cars sold by 2014.

But not entirely. As he acknowledges, Honda is learning some practical lessons from this exercise. Mr. Neil argues that the future is more likely to involve plug-in electrics (and I find that persuasive, which is why I’m anxious for Detroit to start mass-producing the affordable electrics it already knows how to make, and for clean nuclear plants to start popping up to power them). But Honda is learning a lot about how to better make those from making these:

The second reason Honda might have had for building the FCX Clarity: Nothing invested in this project goes to waste. The car’s state-of-the-art fuel cell can be amortized in Honda’s portable power generation division (the company makes awesome generators). And since a fuel-cell vehicle is essentially an electric vehicle with a hydrogen heart, all the technology — the glossy aerodynamics; the powerful, quiet and compact 100 kW (134 hp) electric motor; the new space-saving coaxial gearbox — can be rolled into future electric and plug-in electric projects.

And it has loads of interior space and a huge trunk.

Me, I’m all for efforts such as Honda’s, and if it takes a little utopian prodding from California to make it happen, then great. The Left Coast has gotta be good for something, right? What I generally hear from hydrogen experts is that automobiles are unlikely to be the most practical application, but they do dramatize the possibilities. And you learn from trying to build them.

Beyond that, I’m reminded of something I learned at Rotary Monday. Our speaker was the manager of the new Starbucks roasting plant in Sandy Run. He explained why Starbucks uses only arabica beans grown above 4,000 feet — such conditions make the plant work harder to grow and produce “cherries,” and that makes the coffee better.

The harder we push on hydrogen and every other promising source of power other than oil from countries run by tyrants, the better the result is going to be. So we need to keep pushing. In California, that means making “unreasonable, impractical” demands on automakers. (And maybe it will soon mean the same thing in Washington, with the gummint taking a big role in running Detroit.) And in South Carolina, it means continuing to push to be at the fore of hydrogen and alternative fuel research.

Just for fun, while we’re on the subject, here’s a link to one of my most popular videos ever, the one I shot in Five Points on St. Patrick’s Day 2007, the critically acclaimed “Who Resurrected the Electric Car?

9 thoughts on “A “garnet-red teardrop falling from the cheek of the future…”

  1. Lee Muller

    As long as the taxpayers are not subsidizing these experiments in hydrogen power, fuel cells, hybrid engines, I am all for it.

    Honda just last year discontinued most of their hybrid models.
    So did Toyota.

    The federal government under Bush sank tens of billions of dollars in to research for solar and wind power, with no real results. If it isn’t feasible in the free market, it means it is not the most efficient and cost-effective form of energy.

  2. Lee Muller

    That’s right, these technologies are just out of the experimental phase, and are inefficient, wasteful, create other pollution costs and problems, and may never be competitive.

    In other words, they involve lots of risk.
    That is why private investors need to be making ALL DECISIONS about whether to fund R&D into these commercial products.

    Government bureaucrats, academics, and politicians do not have the proper motivations or expertise to make the right decisions which will be most beneficial to the public.

  3. normivey

    GM and Chrysler and Wall Street have proved that when businesses operate with the sole motivation of monetary profit without concern for the public good or smaller market niches, they will eventually kill the goose that laid the golden egg in their greed. Since our government is going to spend huge amounts of taxpayers’ money (I don’t see that ending anytime soon, no matter who’s in the majority), I’d rather they spend it on developing technologies that will improve our lives, our security and our environment rather than bailing out poor decision-making.

  4. Bill C.

    How do you have a “colleague” when you’re not employed? Or was this a case of two unemployed writers sitting around the kitchen table?

  5. Rick

    @ Lee: The problem with a capitalist approach to EVERYTHING is that you end up with short term results led by the bullish and brash. I’m no communist, but you need to nurture new technologies like this. They are expensive to develop, but they will be worth it.

    We already know what is wrong with oil: It’s polluting, and it will run out soon.

  6. Lee Muller

    I get tired of hearing non-business people mouthing slogans about “capitalists only have a short-term view”.

    Any car company takes at least 3 years to design and bring a new model to market, using proven technologies. When the car is truly innovative, it takes 5 or 10 years. Most GM models take too long, about 5 years.

    The only reason GM is losing money is unsustainable old labor contracts which pay the current workers too much, and promise retirees too much. If GM would bring its labor costs in line with Toyota and Honda here in the US, they would outperform Toyota and Honda financially.

    GM’s sales are down 34% in March vs 2008.
    Honda and Toyota’s sales are down 48%.

    GM has a more viable technology in the revival of its electric car, the Volt. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are inferior to electric cars in every way, and they require an infrastructure which does not exist.

    Just read today’s column in The State about the hydrogen bus purchased by our bankrupt transit system, that will not even be operational for months, and costs 5 times as much as a diesel bus to buy and operate.

  7. Brad Warthen

    The “colleague” was Cindi Scoppe. She shared it with me in the same spirit, and for the same reasons, as she would have when I was at the paper — one journalist pointing out something to another. Hence “colleague.”

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