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.
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.