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Future Chic - Honda's P-NUT is not intended for commercial sale, but it shows how fuel efficiency can be combined with radical design.
How one car maker's engineering ingenuity and dedication to efficiency blazed a trail to the 21st century

The scene was straight out of a Sheryl Crow song. I was standing on Santa Monica Boulevard across from a giant car wash, looking for some fun, the Los Angeles sun beating down, when a gorgeous, garnet-red car pulled up. The driver offered me a lift, so I hopped in and we drove off. I felt a little thrill. The ride was so quiet and smooth, the car's interior so roomy and luxurious. It was my virgin excursion in a car powered by hydrogen.

The car was a Honda FCX Clarity and its driver was Terry Tamminen, former head of the California Environmental Protection Agency and chief policy adviser to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Tamminen left state politics in 2007 to start a nonprofit consulting firm that works on sustainability issues. He is one of about a dozen people in the Los Angeles area who have so far been chosen by Honda to lease one of its sleek, aerodynamically sculpted Clarity sedans. As we drove around, I was struck by the generous legroom in the front passenger seat -- one of several pleasing side effects of the lack of an internal combustion engine under the hood. Another was the absence of engine noise as Tamminen accelerated. Instead I heard the softly rising hum of an electric motor, a sound that reminded me of riding in an elevator.

"My wife drives a natural gas–fueled car," he told me as we cruised. "It's also a Honda, their Civic GX, which has the world's cleanest internal combustion engine. I'd happily lease a hydrogen car from another vendor, but Honda's is the first fuel-cell vehicle that's certified by the government to market to ordinary consumers."

This is only one of the many firsts that Honda has compiled in a long history of introducing progressively cleaner, less polluting products to the American automobile market. In 1975 Honda became the first automaker to introduce an engine -- the CVCC, powering the Civic -- that met the Clean Air Act's standards by combusting fuel more completely and cleanly inside the engine, rather than taking the comparatively inelegant Detroit approach of "scrubbing" pollutants out of post-combustion exhaust gases using a costly device called a catalytic converter. Honda was also the first in its industry to meet a series of increasingly stringent emission standards set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Honda's 1984 CRX-HF was the first mass-produced car to get more than 50 miles per gallon. The company has consistently ranked number one (occasionally slipping to second place, behind Toyota, and now vying for first with Hyundai) as the automaker with the highest Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) ranking. Perhaps most telling, in 2005 Honda broke ranks with the rest of the auto industry to voice support for stronger federal fuel efficiency standards and to embrace the challenge of meeting aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals.


NRDC: Behind the Wheel
A mechanical engineer by training, Roland Hwang is NRDC's transportation program director. He works on transportation, energy, and climate issues at both the state and federal levels. Read more...

This record has earned Honda something of a green halo. It has, in fact, been singled out as the most environmentally responsible automaker by a spectrum of advocacy groups, academic researchers, and industry analysts. "Honda is number one when it comes to the environment," says Daniel Sperling, head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, and current appointee to CARB's automotive engineering seat. "However you look at it, whether in terms of corporate philosophy, product mix, or the technology in any particular vehicle, Honda generally ranks at the top."

Honda's green streak extends to that other kind of green, as reflected on its balance sheet. Although its sales have plunged along with those of its competitors in the past couple of years, Honda has maintained a healthy ratio of cash to debt while General Motors and Chrysler, drowning in red ink, groveled for (and received) huge cash infusions from the government, emerging from bankruptcy as shadows of their former selves. How much, I wondered, has Honda's past record of environmental leadership contributed to its current, relatively healthy financial position? What inspired the company's green streak in the first place, and how deep is it? And to what extent (if any) are the fallen titans of Detroit looking to Honda as a model to emulate as they cast about for survival strategies? I traveled to Honda's American headquarters in Torrance, California, in search of answers.

The American Honda Motor Company occupies a neatly landscaped 110-acre campus in Torrance, about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. My first appointment was with Ben Knight, vice president of research and development. Tall and soft-spoken, with thinning light-colored hair and gray-blue eyes, Knight is a 33-year veteran of the company, which he joined soon after receiving degrees in mechanical engineering and business administration from Stanford University. "Honda is a company that cares about the customer and society, and it's very difficult to provide value to both," he said. "That's the challenge."

Rummaging through a folder of papers, he pulled out a printed PowerPoint graphic. "This is what we call the Three Hill slide," he said. The "three hills" were a trio of rising curves on a graph that plotted society's increasing environmental concerns over time. The first of these curves, in black, depicted growing alarm, starting in the mid-twentieth century, over worsening air quality. The second, an ascending red line, was labeled "Climate Change." The third hill, a green line sloping up above the red one, represented Americans' burgeoning interest in energy sustainability. Each of these hills, Knight told me, was the focus of a distinct set of goals that have guided Honda research and product strategy from the 1970s to the present and will set its priorities for the future.

"We created this as a kind of R&D road map back when air quality was the biggest concern on the public's mind, and the only concern of the regulatory agencies," he said. "But we saw climate change coming as a growing societal concern, and then, arising from that, the desire to move away from petroleum to alternative fuels, to vehicles and infrastructure that would address long-term energy sustainability."

In its efforts to conquer the first hill -- slashing emissions of the six so-called criteria pollutants that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates under the Clean Air Act: nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), carbon monoxide, lead, particulate matter, and ground-level ozone -- Honda pushed the internal combustion engine to new heights of fuel economy and cleaner emissions. Knight reeled off a series of Civic models that set industry-leading precedents: the CRX-HF in the mid-1980s, the Civic VX in the early '90s, and the Civic HX in the later '90s. These models were never best sellers, but "all of them are successes in Honda's mind," Knight told me, "because there was a lot of learning going on in combustion technology, transmission technology, aerodynamics, and customer acceptability." This learning could be applied to the rest of Honda's product lineup.

Knight was especially proud of research in the 1990s that culminated in the four-cylinder 2000 Accord sold in California. "Our goal was to take emissions of the gasoline internal combustion engine to near zero, and we achieved it with this car -- not just in a lab but in real-world driving conditions," he said. In collaboration with the College of Engineering-Center for Environmental Research at the University of California, Riverside, Honda fitted a 2000 Accord sedan with air-testing equipment, then drove the car around the Los Angeles area. The onboard analyzer measured levels of pollutants in the air coming into the engine through its air intake and the air going out through the exhaust pipe. Knight pointed to a series of graphs on a PowerPoint slide showing that the car's exhaust contained lower levels of NOx and hydrocarbons than the intake air. The car was, in effect, filtering pollutants out of the air. This was the first gasoline-powered car to meet California's Super-Ultra-Low-Emission Vehicle (SULEV) tailpipe standard, which meant it was about 90 percent cleaner than a typical gasoline-fueled car. "This is a fantastic story," Knight said, beaming.

image of Craig Canine
OnEarth contributing editor Craig Canine lives in Washington State.  He enjoys riding the Amtrak Cascades (but wishes it were a tad faster).

In the past, I have not thought favorably of Honda. A used Accord we bought in the early '90s gave us frequent trouble, and my stepson's Acura Vigor almost bankrupted him with repairs. My '96 Toyota Camry now has 230,000 miles on it, and nothing has EVER broken except parts that simply wore out (one clutch, one radiator). I value the environment, but I also value a trouble-free car. I will give Honda a second look, though, as a result of this story in OnEarth.

I have owned Honda automobiles since the introduction of the Civic in 1973. I have never owned another brand since then because of the economy and reliability of the vehicles. Also, they are just fun to drive. My job puts me on the road almost 48 weeks a year with a new rental from various manufacturers. With few exceptions, they cannot match Honda in terms of fit, finish, and the joy of driving. It seems that Honda has never been afraid to try something different and I like their unconventional attitude although I'm sur it has cost them profits along the way. I agree that battery technology isn't to the point it may become but will American's be happy if they can't drive their car because it's recharging? A fuel cell vehicle, if it can be mass produced, lowering costs, and an infrastructure that can support it just may be the future. Go Honda!

An uncle bought his Civic in '74 and has been passed down to his children and onto other cousins. The car's only problem was the out dated radio and slow pick-up when compared to the newer cars of the late 80s early 90s. But what an amazing thrill it was when the odometer flipped to all zeros on our way to school. It's still working to this day. No issues, just yearly oil and brake pad maintenance.

I have purchased Honda cars since the 1st purchase of a 1972 coupe. that car had a 600 cc motorcycle engine and looked so small people wondered where we put our feet and the 2 large German Shepards when we traveled. The fuel economy was great and cruised at 75+ with no problem.

Sold the car with 225,000+ miles on the odometer (cost of car new was $1200). If you buy a used car no matter what the make, your just getting a bad car since most owners do not take good car of a car. Go Honda all the way, keep your products flowing and re-introduce the Accord Hybrid I have one and love that Muscle Car.

I believe firmly in Honda. Toyota is a profit-motivated company, but they produce fine products as well. We should not forget that Honda also has a large market share in powersports equipment and the associated technologies. (Turbo four stroke waverunners, the first motorcycle with ABS) They make a darn good lawnmower too. I've owned and still do own/buy Honda bikes, cars, and equipment. It is my feeling that this company takes slow but sure steps in order to make sure they're headed the right direction. Sometimes I question their advertising too, as briefly touched on in the article. Why would any maker put their mid-line (LX) sedans and vehicles in the TV ads? Every other company puts the decked out model that's 20 grand more than the starting price. I still don't know but they somehow make it work. VTEC is another important example. Without VTEC, where would any of the makers be today? When Honda finds its niche in a market, great things are soon to follow. I enjoyed the thought put into the philosophy behind Honda in this article as well. I leave you with two quotes: "Success is 99% failure."
& "We only have one future, and it will be made of our dreams, if we have the courage to challenge convention." --Soichiro Honda

I <3 Honda!