In a move which is being heralded by some as a necessary end to hydrogen transport experimentation, Japanese automaker Honda Motor will discontinue production of both the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid and Clarity Fuel Cell in August.
First reported last week by Japanese financial newspaper Nikkei, Honda has moved to stop production and sales of the Clarity as part of a larger push to trim underperforming models from its line-up.
While many publications and Twitter “analysts” have praised the move as a win for electric vehicles and a necessary end to experimenting with hydrogen fuel cell technology, the move itself appears to be more focused simply on pruning away the company’s less successful models.
In addition to both the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid and Clarity Fuel Cell, Nikkei also reported that Honda would stop making the Legend, its high-end ICE sedan, as well as the Odyssey luxury SUV – all of which were made at the same factory in Sayama, Japan, which the company announced will close by March 2022.
Moreover, the move comes just over a year after Honda axed its Clarity EV.
Similarly, in a lengthy statement to Motor1.com, Honda framed the decision to trim its line-up as part of a larger focus on its two-motor hybrid system and the 2024 introduction of battery electric vehicle models.
“Consistent with this strategy, Honda will conclude production of the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid and Clarity Fuel Cell in August 2021,” Honda said in its statement to Motor1.com.
“This will ensure we have the Clarity Fuel Cell available for lease through 2022, and Honda will continue to support our Clarity customers in the marketplace.
“FCEVs will play a key role in our zero emissions strategy, which is being advanced by our joint manufacturing and development agreements. We continue to make significant investments in fuel cell infrastructure and battery technology.”
The reality of the situation appears to be, simply, that sales of all three Clarity models were underperforming – possibly due to their limited market availability. For example, in the United States, the Clarity EV was reportedly only available in California and Oregon, while the Clarity Fuel Cell was limited to California. Only the Clarity PHEV was available across the United States.
Available only as a leased vehicle in Japan, Europe, and the United States, sales of all three Clarity models have plummeted in recent years. No doubt, for the hydrogen fuel cell model, this is due in part to the limited hydrogen fuelling infrastructure in most countries, but no such excuse exists for the EV and PHEV models.
Honda has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and to making 100% of its vehicle sales BEV or fuel cell electric (FCEV) by 2040.
But hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles remain a contentious topic. Michael Liebreich, the CEO of Liebreich Associations and founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, took to Twitter after the news of Honda ending production of the Clarity broke to applaud the company’s supposed decision not to waste “money on dead end transport solutions”.
In a moment of Clarity, Honda pulls the plug on its fuel cell car. Failure is never something to celebrate, but nor is wasting money on dead end transport solutions (taxpayer money at particular risk of being thrown at H2 fuelling stations right now). https://t.co/TUbOhT2hBk
— Michael Liebreich (@MLiebreich) June 20, 2021
Similarly, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, whose cult of personality has made him either adored or loathed in equal measure, has almost made it a personal hobby to discredit the value of hydrogen electric vehicles. In a company earnings call earlier this year, Musk described hydrogen as “a big pain in the arse” and suggested that “propane or something like that or methane” would be “way better than hydrogen”.
The obvious purpose of Musk’s argument ended in his claim that “we’re extremely confident that we can do long-range trucking with batteries …. if you do it right. You basically have no effect on your payload, or almost nothing, and you can have a long-range truck.”
Herbert Diess, CEO of German automaker Volkswagen, similarly struck down any thought that his company would take the hydrogen fuel cell path, claiming in a Financial Times interview earlier this year that the technology will never work well enough to deliver on the promise of an alternative clean energy source to battery power.
“You won’t see any hydrogen usage in cars,” said Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess, speaking to the Financial Times last week, adding that the idea of a big market for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is “very optimistic.”
“Not even in 10 years, because the physics behind it are so unreasonable,” Diess said.
Of course, considering that both Musk and Diess have made their names by evangelising the benefits of purely electric vehicles, it is unsurprising that they are quick to shun rival technologies.
A less biased view of the future of automotive zero emission technology suggests that rival technologies and ideas are important, even necessary, to achieving a net zero future. Competition breeds innovation, and not just between different companies but between different ideas.
Moreover, hydrogen fuel cell technology has a lot of room to innovate and grow and prove itself a potential zero emission necessity, while also opening the door for hydrogen technology to relieve the strain on rare earth material mining that is, currently, so critical for battery technologies. The growth of hydrogen fuel cell technology into a legitimate zero emission option would also benefit industry as a whole, diversifying the automotive zero emission sector, thus creating new jobs and revenue.
Competing technologies, of course, often leave one in the dust as the other takes off, but that has not been the case across the history of transport, which has seen different technologies fulfil critical and complementary roles – such as the role of trains and trucking, shipping and flight, etc.
Just last week, British luxury automaker Jaguar Land Rover announced that it is developing a prototype hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, also known as an FCEV, based on the brand’s new Land Rover Defender, and which is scheduled to begin testing this year.
“We know hydrogen has a role to play in the future powertrain mix across the whole transport industry, and alongside battery electric vehicles, it offers another zero tailpipe emission solution for the specific capabilities and requirements of Jaguar Land Rover’s world class line-up of vehicles,” said Ralph Clague, head of hydrogen and fuel cells at Jaguar Land Rover.
“The work done alongside our partners in Project Zeus will help us on our journey to become a net zero carbon business by 2039, as we prepare for the next generation of zero tailpipe emissions vehicle.”
Whether or not companies like Honda and Jaguar Land Rover will be able to successfully integrate hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles into its growing stable of zero emission options, only time will tell. But unlike critics like Musk and Diess, there currently seems no tangible reason not to challenge the various possibilities of zero emission technologies.
Joshua S. Hill is a Melbourne-based journalist who has been writing about climate change, clean technology, and electric vehicles for over 15 years. He has been reporting on electric vehicles and clean technologies for Renew Economy and The Driven since 2012. His preferred mode of transport is his feet.