[pagebreak:Green Brings Out the Experimental Side of Automakers]

Experimentation is the name of the green-car game right now, with startups - and large corporations - trying out many new technologies, shapes and sizes.

General Motors (NYSE: GM), which plans to bring its plug-in hybrid Volt to the market in 2010, Ford Motor (NYSE: F) and General Electric (NYSE: GE) were selected for U.S. Department of Energy grants last week, while Nissan Motor Co. (NSDQ: NSANY) said it plans to bring an electric car to market in 2010 (see Electric Vehicles to Get a $30M Charge). Toyota Motor Corp. also plans to offer a plug-in hybrid by 2010.

Earlier this week, Honda Motor Co. made a splash with an announcement that it had begun producing the FCX Clarity, the world's first fuel-cell vehicle intended for commercialization.

Companies have been developing fuel-cell vehicles for years, with Ballard Power Systems first demonstrating fuel-cell technology for vehicles in 1993, but challenges - such as the high cost, a lack of the infrastructure needed to provide hydrogen, the difficulty of storing hydrogen densely enough in the vehicle and low fuel efficiency - have kept them from growing beyond demonstrations.

Honda's announcement doesn't change that, said Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain research at JD Power and Associates.

The company plans to lease "a few dozen" FCX vehicles in the United States and Japan in the next year and about 200 within three years. The company has selected five customers for its first leases, which will begin in July in the United States, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

That doesn't sound like commercialization to Omotoso. After all, Honda began leasing fuel-cell vehicles to fleets in 2002 and to a few individual customers in 2005, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. The company already has 50 to 100 demonstration fuel-cell vehicles on the road, according to Omotoso.

"This is more of a PR campaign than anything," he said. "They are not going to make money from 300 FCX's a year. They're going to lease them to some celebrities in California and other attractive people and it will be good for their advertising and marketing. Honda is really looking to get the green jacket back from Toyota."

Even though Honda was the first automaker to come out with a hybrid, the Insight, a year before the Toyota Prius, it was far less successful and Toyota is the No. 1 hybrid manufacturer.

The fact that Honda is leasing, not selling, its fuel-cell vehicles is reminiscent of GM's EV1 program in the 1990s. (GM, which ended the program, has been blamed for killing the electric car.)

But the plan makes sense because fuel-cell vehicles cost too much to commercialize right now, and there are too few hydrogen filling stations to make them viable for the mainstream, Omotoso said.

"I've seen numbers from as low as $100,000 to as high as half a million, and obviously they can't sell [the vehicles] for that much," he said. "Until the infrastructure improves and the price of the vehicles comes down to, say, the $30,000 range, it's hard to see any widespread sales of fuel-cell vehicles."

Still, the announcement has created positive buzz for Honda, and many might think the lease plan, which Omotoso said is expected to cost $599 per month including insurance and maintenance, is a good deal.

"If the FCX is successful and there is significant demand, I could see Honda ramping up their production and sales after a few years," he said.

According to Bloomberg, Honda President Takeo Fukui said earlier this week the company might mass produce the car in 10 years.

Companies aren't the only ones experimenting with cars.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced Monday he will create a car-free zone on three Saturdays in August.

[pagebreak:Transportation Experimentation: Continued]

The mayor previously proposed a plan to charge a congestion fee of between $8 and $21 for cars entering midtown Manhattan, a plan modeled after London’s congestion charge, but the plan was shot down in April when Democrats in the State Assembly decided not to bring the proposal to the Assembly floor (see Green Light post).

The new plan, called Summer Streets, will ban cars, trucks and buses from a 6.9-mile stretch of streets through Manhattan, the New York Times reported, adding that the mayor views the initiative as an experiment that could expand if successful.

Omotoso characterized the move as "more of a symbolic gesture than something that’s going to have a real effect."

While the London charge has helped reduce rush-hour traffic in central London, restricting cars on Saturdays isn’t the same thing, he said.

"I think it’s an experiment worth trying, and it will definitely have some small impact on the environment, but it’s just three days," he said. "I think it’ll be popular with some residents and visitors who just like the idea of being able to walk around and not have to deal with traffic."

But while it’s likely to be welcomed initially, the test will come if the mayor decides the experiment is successful and should be expanded, he said.

"Then he’ll face more resistance, because even if people think it’s good for the environment and the city, if it changes their lifestyle and it’s an inconvenience, they will resist it at first," he said.

Omotoso, who lived in London when the congestion charge took effect, said people protested the charge at first, but now many residents like the reduced traffic.

San Francisco already has established car-free zones in parts of Golden Gate Park on Sundays and some Saturdays, and cities such as Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago and El Paso, Texas, also are planning car-free events at public parks, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Omotoso said he could see other cities, such as Boston and even parts of Los Angeles, beginning their own experiments if New York’s is successful.