Toyota has built a prototype hydrogen fuel cell truck using most of the hydrogen fuel cell components from two of its Mirai passenger vehicles. What sounds like a project from a scene in a Transformers movie turns out to be almost as entertaining as a Hollywood blockbuster.
A Compelling Need
Toyota Logistics Services (TLS) operates a facility in the Port of Los Angeles which sits in very close proximity to the Port of Long Beach. The heavy concentration of container ships hauling cargo in and out of the ports combined with the heavy trucks used to move individual containers in and out of the port at the highest volumes in the United States have resulted in some of the worst air quality in the nation.
To put this in perspective, 10,000–12,000 trucks move in and out of the Ports of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach every day. Every single day. Cramming that much heavy vehicle traffic into a small area comes at a cost. The air quality in the region has driven the cancer risk up in neighborhoods adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles to 1.7 times that of the greater Los Angeles region.
A Prototype is Born
Toyota took up the challenge of driving a meaningful reduction in its emissions from the port region and, after some brainstorming, decided to build a hydrogen fuel truck prototype to explore the potential use cases for a hydrogen fuel cell electric truck in its TLS facility.
Toyota’s project was initiated prior to the announcement of the Nikola Motors hydrogen fuel cell truck, before Tesla’s fully electric Semi was unveiled, and even before Cummins’ electric powertrain offering. Today, BYD is already delivering its fully electric, class 8 heavy trucks to customers, with a slew of offerings and most of the other players already taking reservations for offerings that will enter the market over the next few years.
To get started, Toyota bought a glider – or rolling chassis – and threw it into a warehouse with two of its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), along with a handful of its brightest engineers and one mission: build a prototype hydrogen fuel cell truck.
A short 10 months later, the team had a fully functional hydrogen FCV–powered class 8 truck that it dubbed “Alpha Truck.” Nearly all of the fuel cell components from the two Mirai were rolled into Alpha Truck, with the primary exception being the electric motors. To ensure that the performance and power requirements of a heavy truck could be met, Toyota designed a new motor specifically for Alpha Truck.
The new motor coupled with the instant torque of electric motors means Alpha Truck puts diesel-powered trucks to shame “off the line” and up hills. The prototype is already tugging at the reigns and handily beats out a loaded diesel truck off the line … if you’re into that sort of thing.
Electricity for the motor comes from the hydrogen fuel cell stack, which converts hydrogen into electricity, with water being the only byproduct. Alpha has capacity to store 40 kilograms of hydrogen, which is a significant boost compared to just 4.5 kilograms of capacity in the Mirai. After generation, electricity is then stored in the onboard 12 kWh Toshiba battery, which ensures a constant flow of juice into the motor.
To Scale or Not to Scale
The Alpha Truck is being tested in the Toyota Logistics Services yard in the Port of Los Angeles today, where the team has put 8,200 miles on it to date, vetting out the design in a real-world use case.
Heavy-duty vehicles are prime targets for electrification due to the higher torque that comes from electric motors as compared to internal combustion engine vehicles. Heavy duty vehicles also consume much more power in a single vehicle than passenger vehicles. A typical family driving a Toyota Mirai will use 170 kilograms of hydrogen per year, whereas a single hydrogen fuel cell truck will consume a mind boggling 40 times as much at an estimated 7,500 kilograms per year.
Looking to the future, Toyota is already developing the second iteration of its hydrogen fuel cell heavy-duty truck in parallel to continued testing of the Alpha Truck. The near-term use cases of the prototype trucks are clear, as Toyota continues to push its port operations to zero emissions, but the longer tail of the possibilities depend on what Toyota learns from the proof of concept work in the Port of Los Angeles.
Hydrogen FCVs are currently less efficient, more costly, and generate more pollution than even a normal hybrid Toyota Prius. To be successful with the masses, hydrogen FCV-based transportation requires significant amounts of new infrastructure in new fueling stations, hydrogen storage, hydrogen shipping, and hydrogen production.
Companies around the world are working to clean up the hydrogen supply side of the equation, with renewable hydrogen emerging as a new buzz word. To encourage hydrogen generation from renewable sources, California has mandated that a minimum of 33% of the hydrogen being sold for use in transportation come from renewable sources.
For a full breakdown of the current state of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, related emissions, and the technological breakthroughs required for them to be competitive with battery electric vehicles, check out our core reference article on the topic.