How Toyota Plans To Revolutionize The Trucking Industry With Hydrogen Fuel Cells
By Sourced Externally
February 8, 2024
The Toyota Mirai may become one of the most influential vehicles in trucking. Rather than wait for hydrogen pumping stations to appear in every town with at least one stoplight, Toyota has set its sights on the trucking industry. The company is in collaboration with trucking conglomerate PACCAR to put hydrogen-powered commercial trucks onto the road. When it comes to hydrogen fuel cells, the trucking industry is a better fit than the domestic passenger car industry. Toyota is planning to take full advantage of this and stake out a piece of the truck market of the future.
Toyota And PACCAR Are Developing Hydrogen-Powered Commercial Trucks
PACCAR (owner of Peterbilt, Kenworth, and other commercial truck brands) and Toyota are joint-developing a hydrogen fuel cell semi truck.
The two companies have already built and tested a concept vehicle by putting two Toyota Mirai powertrains into a Kenworth truck body.
Fuel cells are easier than internal combustion engines to link together.
Toyota and PACCAR have plans in the works to make hydrogen trucks. For the uninitiated, PACCAR is the company that owns Peterbilt, Kenworth, Leyland Trucks, and the Dutch truck manufacturer DAF (among others). Towards the end of 2023, Toyota and PACCAR announced that they would deliver their first production trucks in 2024. There has been no further news about this, but that could be because production details are still being worked out.
Toyota And PACCAR Have Already Made Successful Concept Vehicles
Under the name Project Portal, Toyota and PACCAR have already made prototype trucks. Essentially, the diesel engine and all its accouterments were removed from a Kenworth T680 truck. Two Toyota Mirai powertrains were installed in its place. This resulted in a truck with 675 horsepower and 1,325 pound-feet of torque. The prototype version only had about 200 miles of driving range, but it should be understood that this was meant more as a proof-of-concept than a final design. As with diesel trucks, the range is determined by the size of the fuel tank (or tanks).
Honda and GM Have Also Proven The Modularity Of Fuel Cell Systems
Toyota is not the only company exploring the possibilities of parallel fuel cells. Honda and General Motors are joint-manufacturing fuel cell systems in a factory just outside of Detroit. Although the two companies’ cells only put out a relatively paltry 77 kilowatts (103 horsepower), they can be linked together to get practically any power output desired. In a decisive move to prove the technology, Honda is using hydrogen fuel cells instead of the customary diesel to power the emergency backup generators at its data center in Torrance, California.
Fuel cells are more inherently modular than internal combustion engines. While some amount of design finesse is required to make multiple modular fuel cell systems work as one unit, this is a far easier task than linking internal combustion engines. Fuel cells have no crankshafts that must be mechanically synchronized. Like batteries, fuel cells only put out electricity and nothing else.
Toyota’s Future Hydrogen Plans
Toyota is pursuing hydrogen in addition to BEVs, solid-state batteries, and hybrids.
Toyota and PACCAR are not planning to put a hydrogen combustion engine into trucks.
Toyota is using the 2024 Paris Olympics as a hydrogen showcase.
Toyota’s hydrogen truck announcement may come as a bit of a surprise for those following the automaker’s sometimes rocky transition to EVs. The popular myth that has arisen says that recently retired CEO Akio Toyoda personally hated electric cars and forced the company to pursue hydrogen as his personal passion project, effectively preventing Toyota from developing any EVs until he retired in 2023. Those who believe such things have noted that Toyota did not introduce an EV (the bZ4X SUV) until his departure.
However, the management of an international corporation rarely operates on such simplistic terms. Toyota is continuing to develop battery-electric vehicles, hybrids, hydrogen vehicles (both combustion and fuel cell), and solid-state EV batteries.
Toyota Is Not Making A Hydrogen Combustion Truck
Of course, one may wonder why Toyota isn’t using commercial trucks as a vehicle for its hydrogen combustion engine. After all, the massive rumbling diesel engine is part of the iconography of trucking. Furthermore, Toyota has been an enthusiastic promoter of hydrogen engines. However, fuel cells put all the energy from hydrogen into the vehicle itself. It is an inevitable fact that engines can never make full use of all the energy produced when fuel detonates in their combustion chambers. To put it bluntly, burning hydrogen isn’t the best way to use it.
Toyota Is Taking Hydrogen To The 2024 Paris Olympics
Toyota will make the upcoming Paris Olympics its hydrogen showcase. The company is providing 1,345 hydrogen vehicles for the event. This includes sedans, shuttles, and buses. (Toyota is also providing a slew of BEVs and hybrids). Toyota is taking full advantage of the chance to show the versatility of hydrogen at an event that gets the whole world watching. This stands to be a decisive PR coup for Toyota, a company that has withstood a long low-grade slogging for its almost quixotic devotion to hydrogen.
From a public-relations perspective, Toyota may have more riding on the Olympics than anything else. Those who have followed Toyota’s attempts to move beyond gasoline will note that the company’s previous attempt to show off its latest tech at the Olympics was a failure. Toyota had promised to show one of its long-awaited solid-state batteries at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. When the games finally happened a year later (the pandemic caused a twelve-month delay), Toyota was absent without comment. This “failure to appear” gave more ammunition to an already well-armed cohort of comment-section skeptics.
Hydrogen’s Biggest Problems Don’t Matter As Much For Commercial Trucks
One of the biggest roadblocks for hydrogen-powered vehicles has been that sales-killing question: “But, where do I fill it up?” However, this isn’t as big of a problem for fleet use. It is easier to install hydrogen pumping stations at truck stops along well-traveled routes than it is to put one in every town with more than one stoplight.
Additionally, hydrogen fuel cells are at their best when the vehicle is cruising at a steady speed. They often struggle to provide the massive power surge required when the driver floors the pedal. (For this reason, FCEVs have batteries to provide that extra power boost when needed.) This makes fuel cells a natural fit in an industry involving long highway driving hours.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells Weigh Less Than EV Batteries
Hydrogen fuel cell systems weigh less than EV batteries. Granted, the battery weight doesn’t really matter for passenger cars. One can add an extra few hundred pounds to the average passenger vehicle with relatively little consequence. However, the batteries required to power an 18-wheeled truck along even the shortest of routes can be heavy enough to reduce the truck’s payload capacity.
Hydrogen Still Works When The Local Power Goes Out
Hydrogen does not require the robust power grid that battery EVs depend on. The trucking industry operates on tight schedules with nearly no room for error. With battery-powered trucks, a two-hour power outage in a hub city can financially devastate a trucking company. However, a hydrogen pumping station would only need enough backup generating capacity to operate the fuel pumps rather than the tremendously higher load required to recharge a fleet.
This reduced electricity demand makes hydrogen trucking a more natural fit for any company whose routes go through areas with unreliable electricity, such as Texas. Trucking companies in such places would probably prefer to maintain a hydrogen fueling network than risk financially disastrous fallout every time the local power grid gets overloaded.
This Partnership Shows That Toyota Isn’t The Only Company That Believes In Hydrogen
For a long time, Toyota’s long push for hydrogen has looked like an interesting yet foolish waste of money. But if Toyota is daft for devoting so many years to hydrogen, it’s in good company– even if few other companies are putting out hydrogen cars at present.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement (aside from a heck of a promotional contract for the 2024 Olympics) is its partnership with one of the largest truck manufacturers in the world. PACCAR owns some of the most ubiquitous brands in the trucking industry. It is not a small company trying to borrow Toyota’s decades of international success. And, while companies in any industry have been known to occasionally take on unprofitable projects in the name of good PR, that is not the case here.
Trucks Have Different Needs Than Cars
While trucks and domestic cars operate on the same basic principles, the two vehicles have vastly different needs. Many hydrogen skeptics’ go-to talking points for cars simply do not apply when discussing commercial trucking. While fuel cells may always remain relatively rare in domestic cars, they can easily become commonplace in the trucks that carry cars to dealer lots.
Hydrogen Is Only Beginning To Come Into Its Own
Hydrogen has been relatively under-exploited as an energy source. However, increased consciousness about things like “finite resources” and “pollution” has dramatically raised interest in previously ignored fuels. The possibility remains that the Mirai sedan and its hydrogen cohorts may end up like the steam cars from a century ago: initially promising but ultimately a technological dead end. But regardless of whether fuel cells ever truly compete with batteries, they are not going away. If Toyota and its partners are right, hydrogen may be the fuel that delivers all our goods.