Home Refueling of Honda’s Natural Gas Civic Leading to Hydrogen Vehicles
That assessment came after extended testing of this vehicle. More than a year behind the wheel of a compressed natural gas Civic GX prompted the conclusion that if CNG refueling was conveniently nearby, there was every reason to buy and drive this sedan as a family car, let alone a fleet vehicle.
These vehicles are nearly seamless in their operation on natural gas. They are also comfortable, capable, and the cleanest-running internal combustion production vehicles on the planet.
The only part of the driving experience different from a gasoline vehicle is refueling. The CNG Civic’s 200 or so mile range – something that varies depending upon driving habits and certain environmental factors like ambient temperature – requires filling up more often than a typical gasoline vehicle. As experience has proved, though, that doesn’t really pose a problem.
What is an issue is that there are 75,000 gasoline stations in the U.S., but only slightly more than 1,200 CNG stations. This means that long-distance trips must be planned carefully around refueling opportunities, or more likely, the Civic GX is a family’s second car. The dearth of CNG stations also means that many new car buyers who might want to buy and drive a Civic GX cannot. If CNG isn’t available, it just isn’t available.
But now that limitation may become but an historical footnote. Honda says it will be selling its natural gas Civic to consumers in 2003, and it has added a new twist to overcome the fueling station conundrum: the potential for home refueling.
Honda, which owns a 20% stake in FuelMaker Corp., is working with this company to develop an affordable home refueling appliance that will allow operation of the Civic GX virtually anywhere. With a target retail price of $1,000 and a planned introduction late next year, the FuelMaker appliance solves the chicken-and-egg dilemma faced by all alternative fuels – refueling availability. Simply, with a FuelMaker, there’s no need for a public refueling station to drive one of these vehicles.
The FuelMaker appliance, called “Phill,” will be the first low-cost, home-based refueling appliance. Mounted in a garage, it will allow natural gas vehicles to be refueled directly from a homeowner's existing natural gas supply line, with the gas compressed from extremely low pressure to the high pressure needed to fill a vehicle’s CNG tank.
The home refueling concept goes way beyond the needs of Honda’s Civic, or any natural gas vehicle for that matter. Importantly, it holds promise for a future generation of hydrogen-fueled vehicles powered by fuel cells.
This is underscored by yet another joint effort – this one between Honda R&D and fuel cell developer Plug Power – that seeks to incorporate home hydrogen refueling with a natural gas powered residential fuel cell that supplies a home with heat, hot water, and electricity. Refueling a fuel cell vehicle with home-produced hydrogen would simply be another benefit of such a system.
Both approaches speak to Honda’s significant interest in home refueling. Indeed, coupling a consumer-oriented natural gas Civic with a method of refueling at home may come as a surprise to some, but probably shouldn’t. Honda has been on this track for a while now because of its past electric vehicle development.
According to Honda R&D Co. Ltd. president Takeo Fukui, the company’s experience with customers charging Honda EVs at their homes helped create an understanding of the challenges facing natural gas vehicles. Simply, both EVs and NGVs lack a widespread public refueling infrastructure, something that makes establishing a consumer market a challenge.
Perhaps Honda and Phill will resolve that challenge, all the while paving the way for hydrogen at-home refueling for a future genre of fuel cell vehicles.