Toyota has played one long game—hybrid technology—and done it smartly. Now it’s investing deeply in another even longer one: hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Company president Akio Toyoda has declared that hydrogen represents the next 100 years for the company, but today Toyota gave us a glimpse of how this zero-tailpipe-emission technology could do a lot of good over the next decade and beyond: replacing diesel engines in short-haul, heavy-duty trucks.
In Toyota’s Mirai as well as the Honda Clarity fuel cell, the technology has arrived where drivability and functionality are concerned, yet it faces some daunting infrastructure challenges before becoming a viable, scaled-up solution for passenger cars. In the interim, the technology can help spare our lungs and clean up the air where the infrastructure isn’t an issue: at the Port of Los Angeles, for instance.
For this feasibility study, called Project Portal, Toyota has fitted a full Class 8 Kenworth semi with two 114-kW fuel-cell stacks from the production Mirai sedan (for a combined 228 kW), as well as a high-torque electric motor system and a 12-kWh battery pack that is specially configured to charge and discharge quickly. Even heavy-duty drayage tasks such as those at the L.A. port require less than 200 kW of power for constant-speed moving tasks, according to Takehito Yokoo, senior executive engineer with Toyota Motor Research & Development, while the battery is needed for tapping into the system’s 670 horsepower and more than 1325 lb-ft of torque, which only come into play when accelerating fully loaded or pulling cargo up ramps.
The Port as Proving Ground
It’s a work in progress but one that will be working very hard daily. The fuel-cell stacks in this proof-of-concept vehicle are fitted with just the necessary cooling systems, according to Yokoo, and the study aims to find out what additional measures might be required to maintain durability in this very different use cycle.
The team behind the project won’t yet disclose the size of the hydrogen tank, but they anticipate getting more than 200 miles per fill out of the truck. That’s long enough to cover a day of existing port operations. The truck will use the higher 10,000-psi pressures provided by a custom-built, natural-gas-fed private station on the port premises.
Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), commended Toyota and urged other companies to become involved. “CARB will be following the progress of this feasibility study with interest, as we look to develop the best mix of regulations and incentives to rapidly expand the market for the cleanest, most efficient big trucks to meet the need for dramatic change in the freight sector,” she said in a pre-released statement.
The study will add to the Clean Air Action Plan, under which the Port of Los Angeles and the nearby Port of Long Beach have made meaningful reductions in their emissions since 2005.
Helping Clean Up Urban Air
Craig Scott, the lead on the project and national manager for Toyota’s U.S. advanced technology group, points to single-site heavy truck use such as this as a niche that was waiting to be filled (pun likely intended) with hydrogen. “There’s a lot of demand, and not a lot of solutions to meet that demand,” he said. “The emissions issues here are significant, and in order to have this port grow and expand, we need to have zero-emission solutions.”
After a time of stagnation, there’s much happening with heavy trucks—including tighter efficiency standards through 2027, formally adopted this past year, that will encourage and reward advanced technology. Nikola Motor Company is also working on a variation of the format by developing a long-range rig. Nikola’s plan also includes installing hydrogen stations at truck stops around the country—ambitious, given the cost per fueling station. With battery-electric semis in the works from Tesla and others, eco-conscious companies looking to green their fleets will have a lot to consider. For Toyota, it could be that local fleets and heavy haulers are a great way to hedge its bets on hydrogen.