Honda FCV Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle (FUTURE/CONCEPT)

Written By: Brittney B.

                            Honda FCV Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle (Future/Concept)

After leading the auto industry in fuel cell innovations for more than a decade, Honda is finally graduating to its most practical, efficient fuel cell vehicle yet. The Honda FCV (fuel cell vehicle) concept car was unveiled in Japan in November 2014, followed by a stateside debut in January 2015. Although it's not the world's — or the company's — first hydrogen-powered vehicle, the FCV does mark a significant new direction for the increasingly popular fuel cell concept.

Fuel cell vehicles are powered by hydrogen and oxygen, which get converted into electricity by a fuel cell stack within the vehicle. This electricity quietly propels a motor, which is powerful enough to drive the whole car without any assistance from batteries or gasoline. This eco-friendly design requires only a quick hydrogen refueling and leaves nothing but water vapor behind, so it's no surprise that demand for fuel cell vehicles is rising faster than ever.

The Honda FCV is still just a design concept, but if Honda's early estimates are accurate, its smaller, lighter fuel cell will allow the car to last more than 300 miles after mere minutes of hydrogen re-fueling. The subcompact vehicle will also feature a new and improved interior, with extra leg room and seats made of Honda's signature plant-derived "bio-fabric". But without considering the cars that came before it, it's difficult to know what to expect.

Welcoming a newer, better hydrogen vehicle

Honda is already positioning the FCV as an improvement upon the FCX Clarity, a fuel-cell electric car that's no longer available for lease. According to the automaker, the forthcoming FCV signals the "next generation" of hydrogen-powered vehicles, which will feature better range, greater energy density and shorter refueling times than any generation before it. Its predecessors might be things of the past, but their history actually says a lot about the possibilities that lie ahead.

Honda is hyping their latest fuel cell concept as a step toward the future, but it's definitely not their first. As early as 1999, Honda was already pursuing the technology that would eventually lead to the FCX Clarity. Its first two fuel cell vehicle prototypes, the FCX-V1 and FCX-V2, were equipped with big, bulky and impractical fuel cell stacks, but they kicked off years' worth of innovation and progress. In 2002, the FCX became the first-ever fuel cell car to win approval for commercial use, with the city of Los Angeles leasing the first five and Japan receiving a limited number too. Two years later, the state of New York followed suit.

It wasn't until 2007, however, that the FCX Clarity finally debuted and set the pace for future progress. This electric fuel cell vehicle was the first example of a dedicated platform hydrogen fuel cell vehicle — not just for Honda, but for the automobile industry in general. A year later, it was finally available to American and Japanese consumers, with improvements that included a smaller, lighter fuel cell stack and the ability to operate in colder temperatures. However, after nearly a decade of hydrogen-based options, Honda had to keep production numbers tiny because the world still wasn't ready to invest in hydrogen fueling stations. Luckily, the new Honda FCV is one of many fuel cell vehicles slated for production in the years ahead, and the increased demand could change everything.

  Honda FCV Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle (Future/Concept)

Competitors, consumers and rising demand

Hydrogen-powered vehicles can't operate without hydrogen fueling stations, so throughout the evolution of its FCX vehicles, Honda had no choice but to wait for everyone else to catch up. Today, about two dozen hydrogen fueling stations are spread throughout the continental United States, with several dozen more in the carbon-conscious state of California alone. Drivers who live near San Francisco and Los Angeles enjoy more hydrogen access than anyone else, creating a small but thriving market for new fuel cell vehicles in these metropolitan areas.

However, until other states copy California's climate change initiatives (including tax credits for zero-emission vehicles), Honda may have to limit availability to the West Coast. Luckily, competitors are finally joining the fight, which might also serve to spike demand for hydrogen fueling stations. The Toyota Mirai, a fuel cell vehicle now slated for production in 2015, was introduced in 2013 as a prototype called the Toyota FCV. And Hyundai already leases the Tucson Fuel Cell, a fuel cell crossover vehicle, to California drivers.

Meanwhile, Mercedes and Nissan also have fuel cell vehicle concepts, and Audi recently unveiled their successful development of performance fuel cell technology, via the groundbreaking A7 Sportback concept. A couple other examples of fuel cell vehicle experiments are currently enjoying real-world applications, with Mazda selling a few to the Japanese government and Aston Martin employing theirs in a race car.

If and when the Honda FCV does arrive in dealerships, it will probably adopt a new name to go along with its new technology. But that's just one of many details that the auto industry is anxiously waiting to learn. If the concept actually does arrive in Japanese dealerships in spring 2016, it will be followed by American and European releases. Until then, Honda hopes to pave the way for commercial success by encouraging the introduction of more fueling stations, keeping track of competitors' performances, and working with state and federal governments to clean up the air and change the way the auto industry works.