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Honda Civic GX
Honda Civic GX uses natural gas, giving it a 200-mile range and a SULEV emissions rating. Honda sells about 1000-a-year in the US.

Honda Insight - Part 3

Conclusion of interview with Honda's Stephen Ellis

By Josh Landess

SE: The Natural Gas Civic has a look and feel like the Civic Hybrid, but the Natural Gas Civic has been built since 1998 model year. You drive it like any other car. One point seven-liter traditional Civic engine that has specific changes for use on natural gas. Compression ratio is higher; the injectors are unique to Honda. It has about a 200-mile range.

I had expected a different driving experience, but it's not really that different from a regular vehicle.

SE: It's the beauty of the car is that you can't tell it's an alternative fuel vehicle.

EVW: It doesn't seem to have the Idle Stop feature.

SE: This would not have Idle Stop because what you don't have is the Integrated Motor Assist of the hybrid. So you wouldn't have an Idle Stop system on a car that uses traditional twelve-volt battery and starter systems. You may have heard earlier some discussion about 42 volt battery systems? That's the whole concept; when you go to a 42 volt system you can have starter motors that are done differently. You can do those type of things that most people don't do with a 12-volt system. So, there's a price to everything, right?

If you just made this vehicle have Idle Stop [with a 12 volt system], it might work for let's say a 60% to 80% of the people, but those that live in the city, Brooklyn or downtown areas where it's primarily stop and go, you may actually deplete the battery just from the starts, if you can't recover the power quick enough. See? That would then mandate that you have regenerative braking.

Well, to have regenerative braking you need a generator like an IMA system. So it's a little bit of a vicious circle. Could you have idle stop on the traditional vehicle? You could. Would it work for the masses? Maybe not.

EVW: How successful has this Civic Natural Gas vehicle been approximately? I mean we talked about the low in-the-hundreds placement of the EV Plus. I assume this has done a little better than that.

SE: Oh yes. We do about a thousand of these a year nationwide and you know, I think that strikes at the heart of the very point about what would be the market for battery electric vehicles. Here's a vehicle that has a 200-mile range so more than twice that of an electric vehicle. It has both slow and fast fueling capability. Battery/electrics have just a slow fueling capability. And we have infrastructure that truly can support a drive between here and the Bay Area and down to San Diego and things like that and yet we have not marketed this to retail consumers because of infrastructure challenges.

EVW: Those 1000-a-year are mostly fleet?

SE: Primarily fleet.

EVW: Occasionally you get a homeowner?

SE: Absolutely. There's individuals that say hey, you know? I live in San Diego. I live in L.A. I understand the infrastructure. I get car pool lane access and this makes sense for me.

EVW: Well it seems like the mechanicals are very similar to a regular car so you probably don't have too much added expense?

SE: The largest single expense to a gaseous-fuel vehicle like this is the CNG cylinder. The engine is a 1.7 Liter, four cylinder, the same as a traditional Civic. And then when you accelerated, you know, you're the judge but it probably felt very similar to a traditional Civic.

SE: This has a CVT - a Continuously Variable Transmission -- like the Civic Hybrid. So that's why you didn't feel the shifting or the downshifting when you accelerated.

So here's a car that's a certified SULEV. It has been certified SULEV since the regulation became standardized in 2000, and it's the first and only 50 state SULEV, so it operates at that level nationwide. The big difference there is that with gasoline - the fuel is the enabler of SULEV for gasoline vehicles. You have to have low sulfur or California re-formulated gasoline, where natural gas is virtually the same nationwide. You can't do gasoline SULEV where you don't have the low sulfur gasoline.

I asked Mr. Ellis about the issue of CO2 and climate change. Even if the hydrocarbon burners emit very very low amounts of pollutants, they seem to do little to put us on more sustainable ground with respect to CO2 emissions, fossil fuel use, and so forth.

SE: There are some hybrids that provide maybe 20 to 30% fuel efficiency and you get a corresponding reduction in the CO2 or climate change emissions, but Natural Gas Civic, through both our own testing and independent testing, is proven to have 20 to 25% CO2 reduction just from the use of natural gas. So just by operating my vehicle on natural gas, you get that benefit.

Some automakers have said we're going to hybridize a vehicle: we're going to get a 10% improvement in fuel economy. You know, like a truck or an SUV or something. And someone said well we think we can get 20%. Now here is a vehicle that already has 20 to 25% just from use of the fuel, without hybridization.

Here's the thing that this represents now that you've driven both the Natural Gas Civic and the Civic Hybrid: you have one popular vehicle platform with a variety of fuels: Traditional Gasoline (the Civic), Hybridized Civic, and a Natural Gas Civic. So it's a popular platform with a proven capability of having various drive train technologies.

EVW: I don't know if "economy of scale" is the right word, but it definitely has to help in business.

SE: It's the mass production capability of these technologies.

You brought up that part about Hythane [15% mixture of Hydrogen mixed with Natural Gas] and you were starting to talk a little bit before about renewable fuels and fuels that could be manufactured. Today methane or natural gas is kind of by-product of drilling for oil. Often they'll poke a hole in the ground for oil and get natural gas and there are now dedicated natural gas wells.

People ask about natural gas relative to its sustainability and the fact that there are great resources of natural gas. Canada has huge reserves. The misunderstanding is whether it's a renewable or not, and this is now proven through methane trapping of landfill gas. There's methane that's captured and liquefied, which brings it to its pure state. And then you can sort of turn it back.

Honda Engineers, Honda Business Goals

EVW: The Honda Engineers: How much do they get enthusiastic about choosing the high mileage route versus choosing to design Formula One cars? Is it really regarded as an exciting engineering challenge to design higher mileage vehicles or do some of them say something like "Yeah, let me design a fast car and go away."?

SE: Actually there's a great link between the two because some of the same engineers that we've used on our Fuel Efficient Vehicle projects and Low Emission projects came from Formula One. Absolutely: you do this one time, and then next move on to the other area.

EVW: I have a sense, and I haven't been able to prove, that the engineers with some of the companies that seem a little less enlightened to seeing fuel efficiency as part of good engineering, that those engineers are sort of....

SE: I think I understand where you're going: There are engineers with other automakers that may have lots of good ideas that never see the light of day.

EVW: They don't get the chance to work on the sorts of cars they'd like to work on, or they work on them, and then the technology is sort of treated half-heartedly by the company. I think that's a real pity. I've read the comments of at least one person associated with Aero-environment, and I have exchanged email with one guy that claimed to work at GM on the EV1, and they just had to move on to other matters, you know? It wasn't there for them anymore.

SE: I think the best answer to that comes from things you'll hear and read about Honda and that is that this is a philosophical position that we take with caring for the environment and striving to have the best case fuel economy. And so it's business with us. It's not the winds of change, it's not the political climate that causes us to do things on a month to month or a year-to-year basis.

EVW: From a practical standpoint; is there something there of Japan having less of its own oil so they've always had to strive a little bit harder on fuel mileage issues? I know they're a net importer and I've always assumed that just from a practical standpoint, they were almost being forced into that approach towards mileage.

SE: I've never seen that idea. It makes sense.

I think there is a good history of Honda, specifically, striving for conservation, whether it's in our motorcycle products, scooters, …

EVW: Two stroke?

SE: Four stroke outboards, four stroke lawn mowers, four stroke weed wackers. Honda almost never built two strokes.

Times Article Viewed: 7402
Published: 16-Nov-2002

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