Of the many words you might use to describe the BBC’s Top Gear programme, “profound” isn’t usually one of them. But when Clarkson and the boys delivered their verdict on the Honda Clarity, that’s exactly what it was.
The contrast with the other “eco-friendly” model featured on the show – the battery-powered Tesla supercar – could not have been starker.
In a straight line, the Tesla may have outperformed the Lotus Elise it is modelled on, but it costs £90,000-odd, takes all night to charge up, and appeared to run out of juice in next to no time (getting you just far enough to get really stranded!).
The outwardly unremarkable Honda, however, you filled at the pump in a matter of minutes just like a normal car (only with compressed hydrogen, rather than petrol or diesel), a full tank giving you a range of around 270 miles.
James May delivered the critical analysis:
I’m absolutely convinced that the Clarity is the most important car for 100 years and there’s a very good reason for that… We’ve built our lives around the car as we know it. You get in. You drive as far as you want to go. You fill up. You drive some more. That is the freedom that a petrol-powered car gives you.
If its replacement is something that goes for 10 yards and then takes 4 hours to bring back to life, we’ll have gone backwards. The Clarity, though, is different. It fits the life we already have. The reason it’s the car of the future is because it’s just like the car of today.
It’s those last couple of sentences that are the really important bit.
As long as consumers are asked to make major compromises, or to pay substantial premiums, in the name of more eco-friendly performance, products and services will only ever appeal to a well-to-do niche who are prepared to make those trade-offs.
Generating mass-market appeal requires them to at least match (and preferably outperform) competitors in terms of costs and benefits to the consumer – only then do their eco-credentials become a genuine differentiator.
It’s analogous to Treacy & Wiersema’s concept of value disciplines in approaching corporate strategy – not only do you need to choose to excel in one particular dimension of value to achieve competitive advantage, but you also have to meet threshold levels of performance in all the others.
That’s where the Clarity really scores. The idea of a hydrogen-fuelled car, whose only exhaust output is water, will undoubtedly attract a lot of people. What will ultimately sell it, though, is the absence of the usual downsides.
It’s likely to cost more or less the same as a “normal” car. It’ll be infinitely more reliable (indeed, it may even avoid the need for regular servicing), since there are no mechanical parts to go wrong. And most importantly of all, realising the benefits of the technology won’t require the user to change their behaviour.