With the rising cost of fossil fuels and the increasing use of energy, the need for renewable energy sources is becoming greater. As fossil fuels are not renewable, they are slowly depleting. Motor vehicles are a major consumer of fossil fuels and are emitting a large amount of pollutants into the atmosphere every year. This is why research into an alternative to the internal combustion engine has been such a major part of car manufactures development in the last few years. The use of fuel cells in vehicles has been one of the most investigated alternatives.
Honda is considered to be one of the pioneers of environmental technology, with the development of the worlds first fuel cell powered vehicle to be certified for everyday use, the Honda FCX. It was developed to solve the current environmental issues that have become such a serious problem in the past decade, such as pollution. The FCX was first released in 1999 as a concept car and has since been released as an everyday car in America. The FCX has been categorised as a zero emission vehicle with its only bi-product being water vapour (Honda FCX 2002).
This essay will discuss Honda’s FCX and evaluate its effectiveness from a consumer’s perspective. The major design considerations that will be discussed are performance, safety, comfort and range. The problems with the FCX will also be discussed. Performance is a major consideration when consumers are looking for a new car, so for the FCX to be competitive it has to be equivalent or better than the performance of a conventional vehicle. It has been compared to a Honda civic, and is said to perform better with similar acceleration and is much more efficient with zero emissions (Canadian Driver 2003).
The Honda FCX has around eighty kilowatts of power and accelerates quicker than most small conventional vehicles, although some performance had to be sacrificed to maintain durability (Motor Trend 2004). The FCX also has a short nose, giving it a smaller turning circle and increasing manoeuvrability. The weight of the vehicle is also distributed throughout the car evenly, with the electric motor in the front and the fuel cell stack in the rear. This even distribution of weight makes the vehicle handle very well and also provides a smooth luxurious ride (Honda 1999).
The most important factor in a car is safety. If a vehicle is not as safe as other models then consumers will steer away from it. The Honda FCX is the only fuel cell vehicle that has been fully crash tested. It has passed all regulatory tests for occupant protection and also hydrogen leakage. As the fuel cell stack runs on pure hydrogen, storage of the hydrogen is another major safety issue. The hydrogen is stored in large cylinders that are kept within a protective cage that prevents the cylinders from escaping in an accident (Canadian Driver 2003).
The FCX has front airbags as well as airbags in the backs of the front seats for the rear passengers, ensuring safety for all occupants in the event of an accident (Honda 1999). Another major factor consumers look for in a vehicle is comfort. The Honda FCX is a small car and is obviously aimed at the small car market. Due to the large space that the fuel cell stack and hydrogen storage tanks take up there is not a lot of cabin space. There is only seating for four, however these seats are large comfortable seats, with armrests on each, but there is little room for luggage (Canadian Driver 2003).
As the vehicle is driven by an electric motor, riding in the car is almost silent, except under hard acceleration. With a specific design of the chassis and suspension, driving and riding in the vehicle has a luxurious feel (Eistentein 2001:82). A major concern with the Honda FCX is the range of the vehicle. Range refers to how far the vehicle will travel on a tank of fuel. As consumers have become used to large range fuel tanks, the FCX has a huge set back as the vehicle has a range of only 250-350 kilometres, depending on the driving conditions. The fuelling of this vehicle brings with it other major problems.
As the vehicle needs pure hydrogen to run, it needs to be filled with hydrogen, which is what affects the range. As hydrogen is not available from a fuel station, consumers are forced to provide home refuelling stations, which is relatively inexpensive but inconvenient, as this restricts how far the vehicle can travel from its refuelling station (Kimberly 2004:12). There are a variety of other problems with the FCX. When introducing new technology there is a high chance of also introducing new problems, and the FCX has definitely done this (Laurel 2003:163).
The hydrogen problem, which this essay has discussed, is a good example of an introduced problem. There is also another hydrogen problem, which is the storage of the gas. Hydrogen has a high evaporation rate, and this has shown to be a major issue, as drivers can return to their vehicles after a long storage period to find their hydrogen tanks empty (Crosse 2002:63). Two other technical problems that the FCX has been highly criticised about is the high-pitched whine under hard acceleration, which comes from the compressor that provides air to the hydrogen stack.
The other is the varying feel of the brake pedal in different driving conditions, mainly hilly areas where the braking effort is considerably increased, making it difficult to stop. These two problems have been the main complaints from people who have road tested the vehicle and as a result they have deterred a lot of buyers (Motor Trend 2004). In assessing any product one would have to ask the question, does the product solve the customer’s problem? (Bolwell 1991:42).
In the case of Honda’s FCX, if the problem was to provide an environmentally harmless vehicle, which is cheap to run and performs well, you would have to say yes, as it has all those things. However when providing a product to consumers there are many other factors that determine the sale of the product. It is important to capture all the functions and characteristics that the consumer wants and no annoying or inconvenient functions or characteristics that the consumer does not want (Gause and Weinberg 1989:150).
The FCX does provide a lot of functions and characteristics that many consumers desire, but unfortunately it has also a number of unwanted ones. Although the vehicle performs well with good acceleration and zero emissions, it has a high level of safety and comfort, however the negative factors have deterred consumers. The small range of the vehicle is its biggest downfall, as most people would not be impressed with having to refuel their vehicle every two hundred and fifty kilometres, let alone having to go back to their fuelling station to do so.
Also the acceleration noise and the varying brake pedal feel are enough to deter the consumer on their own. In designing a product there can be as many positive factors or functions as you like, but if there are any stand out annoying factors, the consumer will be immediately deterred. Honda’s FCX fuel cell vehicle has a long way to go before it becomes competitive with the conventional vehicle market, but further design and development, as well as an increasing demand on renewable resources in future years will enhance its competitiveness.