Range anxiety, hydrogen style

Honda plans to follow the FCX Clarity, shown, with a new fuel cell vehicle in the United States and Japan in 2015.

WASHINGTON -- Honda's hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, the FCX Clarity, has been known to travel thousands of miles without refueling.

But only while sitting on the back of a truck.

There are so few hydrogen fueling stations in the United States that Honda often must ship the car from California if it wants to take regulators or curious members of Congress for a spin.

And that is just what the company did this month when it put the FCX Clarity on display at an electric vehicle conference in Washington.

I was able to take a spin in the car, one of just two hydrogen-fueled cars being offered to the American public, along with the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell.

At first blush, it was stunning: The thing drove just like other electric cars. It had a surprising amount of passenger and cargo space, too, considering that Honda had to wedge a hydrogen tank and fuel cell stack into a car the size and shape of a Toyota Prius.

But the refueling options -- that is to say, the lack of options -- demonstrate how far the vision of the hydrogen car still is from reality.

The navigation system in the FCX Clarity showed a station within the city limits of Washington. But as a Honda executive informed me, that station has closed since the last time the navigation software was updated.

After that, the nearest station listed by the navigation system was about 2,400 miles away -- in Las Vegas. But even if the FCX Clarity could have made it there on a single tank of hydrogen, it would have done no good. That fueling station, operated by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, closed in July 2010 because of a lack of funding.

To be fair, other stations have taken their place. There is now a station in Columbia, S.C. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are just 10 public fueling stations nationwide. Nine of them are in California.

Honda started leasing the FCX Clarity in 2008. The company plans to launch the car's successor around 2015, to compete with offerings from Hyundai and Toyota.

The companies cannot be expected to build their own network of hydrogen stations to fuel those cars. That is not their area of expertise.

But if more stations do not sprout up soon, the automakers will be stuck taking aim at a very specific type of customer: the kind that owns a trailer.

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