|Food for thought |
A Rolls-Royce engine is a bit like Roger Moore's eyebrow. Nothing much seems to happen, and yet a lot occurs as a result, if you see what I mean.
When you press the pedal at a standstill in a Rolls-Royce, a quizzical eyebrow is raised somewhere deep in the bowels of the machine, as if to say: "Really?" It moves off, perhaps quite briskly in the case of the Phantom, but without any histrionics whatsoever. There's no noise, no sports-car metallic thrash, and very little sense that things are whirring around and whipping up and down.
But it definitely goes, and with a sort of runaway train indomitability that isn't found in other cars. The propulsive urge blossoms rather than develops, and this is one of the defining attributes of a Rolls-Royce.
But now to the Honda FCX Clarity (above), which I was driving for Top Gear last week. I've banged on about this car quite a bit in the past, and now I've experienced it I want to bang on some more, because it's given me a thought.
Let us remember that this is still merely an electric car, but one that makes its own electricity from a fuel cell instead of relying on batteries. This simple expedient – the fuel cell is an older invention than the car itself – immediately banishes all of the shortcomings we associate with electric cars: the pitiful performance, the pathetic range, the tiresome recharging requirement and the complete paucity of power-sapping ancillaries, such as air-conditioning or even a decent stereo.
The Honda's fuel cell makes 134bhp (100kW), which is roughly what you'd expect of a family car. It can be refuelled with compressed hydrogen gas in a few minutes, and because its power doesn't need to be eked out it can be both enjoyed and squandered on things like heated seats. It soon becomes clear that the perceived failings of electric cars were merely failings of their batteries.
Now we can view in a fresh light the suitability of the electric motor as a means of powering a car. To put it bluntly, it's brilliant. I love internal combustion, but in a way I love it for its foibles – the noise, the way it communicates with me through the language of vibration, the challenge of driving around the peaks and troughs of its delivery. By comparison, electric propulsion is serene. It's quiet, seamless and very refined because, as anyone who has ever looked under a Scalextric car will know, there is only one moving part in an electric motor and it merely goes round and round. Reliable, too; there are extractor fans in factories and restaurants whose motors have run uninterrupted for decades.
There's more. The torque output of an electric motor is not only perfectly linear, it is also at its maximum at no revs. An electric car therefore takes off like a stabbed rat, and this is what makes me think that the next new Rolls-Royce must be an electric fuel-cell motor car. I'm pretty sure they've already thought of this but I came up with it independently, in the bath. So there.
Fit it with a big enough fuel cell and a powerful motor and it will trounce every preceding Rolls-Royce at being Rolls-Roycey. It will have massive urge from rest, will transmit no harshness to its occupants, and it will be utterly dependable. The clock will be absolutely deafening. It will be fast and utterly sublime.
There is another aspect to this. Hydrogen, as a fuel, is greatly misunderstood. I've heard it said that you need electricity to make hydrogen anyway, so it's pointless. In fact, hydrogen isn't made at all, it's an element and merely has to be extracted from its preferred position bound up with something else, such as with oxygen in water. This simply requires energy.
Ironically, it seems to me that hydrogen should be thought of as a very effective battery; a way of storing energy so that it can be released as electricity when needed. Historically, electricity has been very difficult to contain, which is why it has to be made on demand in power stations. The need to respond to demand has enslaved us to long-dead animals and plants as a fuel.
But hydrogen can store nature's energy, of which there is a limitless supply. A tidal power station could be used to extract hydrogen, which we could then use in the car when we wanted it.
So in the future, you could end up driving a Rolls-Royce, perhaps the most recognised monument to mankind's profligacy and extravagance, powered by nothing more than the presence of the moon. Let me hear someone call that a climate crime.
A very happy Christmas, by the way.