Cars of Tomorrow May Help Us Kick Oil Habit

The world's first commercially available hydrogen-powered car may hit the road as early as next month.

Honda Motors Co. says that it has already started mass production on the FCX Clarity, a zero-emissions vehicle introduced two years ago as a concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show. It will be offered next month at select California dealerships as part of a limited lease program.

The announcement comes on the heels of last week's news that Toyota plans to roll out rechargeable plug-in hybrids by 2010.

Some see the latest moves as signs that recent spikes in oil prices have prompted automakers to accelerate the delivery of alternatives to gas-powered cars.

"Whenever car companies are doing something pretty novel, they tend to very cautious," says Joseph Romm, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy. "Toyota probably wanted to wait a few more years to improve the technology, but when the price of gas shot through the roof, they started to understand that the cars will sell like hot cakes."

Some road-ready options like natural gas vehicles have already begun to feed growing demand. "Phones are running off the hook over here," says Richard Kolodziej, President of the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles. "People are asking how to either convert their cars to natural gas or to buy one for themselves."

But to be successful in the long run, a next-generation automobile needs to meet environmental standards and be affordable and flexible enough to fit a range of American lifestyles. And while the top contenders offer several benefits over your typical gas-guzzler, they have drawbacks too.

Natural Gas Vehicles

Natural gas vehicles have been around since the '70s, but haven't caught on in the United States like they have in countries such as Brazil and Germany. Of the estimated 5 million NGVs on the streets today, only 130,000 are driven along U.S. roads.

Such a fact may seem surprising considering there's a lot to like, on the surface at least. Not only is natural gas abundant in the United States, it produces lower emissions and costs about a third less than what's offered at the pump. Clean-burning fuel means less wear and tear on the engine and fewer visits to the mechanic.

The Honda Civic GX, the only natural gas-powered car offered in the U.S., was also recently named the world's cleanest-burning engine by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"All these benefits that we have now, we've had it forever. Now we are seeing the economic benefits and people are responding to it," says Kolodziej. He points out that in states like Utah, where NGVs are growing in popularity, drivers have been filling up at a rate of 65 cents a gallon.

Still, some don't think the potential savings are worth it when taking into account all the inconveniences a NGV owner would have to live with.

The Honda Civic GX, for instance, can only go 220 miles before having to refuel, about 130 miles less than the regular Honda Civic. Additionally, there have been gripes about the lack of trunk space because of the massive fuel tank that's required.

Also, what works in one state, won't necessarily work in another. "If you live in California, you can probably get by with a natural gas vehicle," says Clayton Cornell, managing editor of the alternative energy site Greenoptions.com. "But with most places in the U.S., there just aren't enough refueling stations."

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