Toyota revealed a new prototype of its “Project Portal” fuel cell electric truck Monday, hinting strongly at future commercialization.
The automaker already markets a production fuel cell car, the Mirai. It is using the central components of the car for its Class 8 fuel cell truck.
The new model, called the Beta truck, is built on a glider version of the Kenworth T680 tractor. It is a ton lighter, goes 100 miles farther — 300 miles total — on a fill up of hydrogen gas and is about 10 percent more powerful than the Alpha prototype that Toyota unveiled last year.
The Beta model also “is more commercially viable,” Andrew Lund, Toyota’s chief engineer for the fuel cell truck program, told Trucks.com.
The truck was unveiled Monday during the Center for Automotive Research’s annual Management Briefing Seminars outside Traverse City, Mich.
Toyota remains silent about future plans for the fuel cell truck, but it has a well-publicized corporate commitment to fuel cell technology.
One strong hint that it intends to move forward with the truck is Toyota’s plan to build the world’s largest hydrogen production plant and fueling station at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, where its fuel cell truck demonstration program is based.
Fuel cell vehicles are driven by electric motors powered by electricity produced on-board in the fuel cell stack from hydrogen and oxygen.
Designed in part to provide initial fueling for Toyota Mirai fuel cell sedans as they are readied for shipment to dealerships, the hydrogen station also will handle fuel cell trucks. It is sized to serve many more fuel cell vehicles than are on the road today.
During a walk-around of the Beta truck as it was being built in a facility operated by global engineering firm Ricardo near Detroit earlier this year, a senior Toyota engineer told Trucks.com that efforts were aimed at developing a fuel cell system kit that could be easily shipped and installed.
The analyst community continues to take a “wait-and-see” approach to fuel cell technology for trucking. But many believe Toyota’s efforts are increasing the possibility of the trucks being built and sold to customers.
“This definitely helps with commercialization. Toyota is a major player, and that gets everyone’s attention,” said Cory Shumaker, development specialist with the California Hydrogen Business Council.
“But there still need to be a serious market case, and financial incentives,” he said.
Major truck builders, such as Peterbilt and Kenworth, “tell us they want to see two years of roadworthiness and component reliability testing before they’ll move forward with fuel cell technology,” Shumaker said.
Toyota intends to deliver with Project Portal.
When the Beta truck joins the initial prototype this fall, the pair will generate valuable operational data.
The project began in 2015, and the Alpha truck, designed by Toyota, was built in late 2016 at Ricardo’s Detroit Technology Center. It was tested and refined for several months more at Toyota’s test facility in the Arizona desert before being unveiled publicly in April 2017.
The Alpha truck uses the fuel cell systems from two of Toyota’s Mirai sedans to drive a 670 -horsepower electric motor. It is powerful enough to give the tractor better acceleration and the same hauling power as the Kenworth diesel version.
The same system — with a few modifications — is used in the new prototype.
The second-generation truck’s deep red Kenworth tractor sports a tall, narrow cabinet behind its low-roof sleeper cab. It houses a 12-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and six carbon-fiber wrapped tanks that hold 60 kilograms of compressed hydrogen gas. That’s enough for 300 miles of range, 50 percent more than the Alpha truck’s 200-mile range.
Toyota’s new fuel cell truck prototype is 2,000 pounds lighter than the first version. (Photo: Toyota)
Twin electric motors in the truck churn out more than 670 horsepower and 1,327 pound-feet of torque — roughly equivalent to the output of the Cummins X15 Efficiency Series diesel engine. As with other electric vehicles, all that torque is instantly available, giving Toyota’s fuel cell trucks impressive acceleration.
The Alpha truck has been in harness for more than a year and has racked up more than 8,500 miles hauling imported Toyota parts from ships to various storage and vehicle preparation sites around the ports and into the warehousing districts of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The Beta truck will be doing the same job, Lund said.
Toyota isn’t the only company with an interest in fuel cells for commercial trucks.
Propulsion systems developer U.S. Hybrid and truck maker Kenworth are developing hydrogen fuel cell electric systems for Class 8 drayage trucks. And U.S. Hybrid also has a deal to provide fuel cell powertrains for a variety of commercial trucks from China’s Dongfeng Motor.
Nikola Motor is developing a fuel cell-powered Class 8 long-haul tractor-trailer combo that it says will be able to refuel at a national network of Nikola-built hydrogen stations.
General Motors, one of the world’s biggest car and truck producers, recently unveiled a heavy-duty fuel cell truck concept. It has said hydrogen is a key part of its future.
Additionally, parcel delivery giant UPS is deploying 17 custom-built fuel cell electric Class 6 delivery vans in select markets throughout its fleet over the coming year to capture operating cost and reliability information.
“This isn’t a sprint, it’s a long-distance race, but what Toyota is doing is certainly encouraging,” said Steve Tam, vice president of ACT Research Co., an Indiana-based commercial trucking industry analysis and forecasting firm.
Many obstacles remain, including industry unfamiliarity with fuel cell technology and a lack of refueling facilities. Fuel cell electric powertrains also face competition from other clean emission technologies such as compressed natural gas engines and battery-electric powertrains, he said.
Toyota’s latest fuel cell truck prototype has a 300-mile range. (Photo: Toyota)
“But the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have upped the ante on pollution control, and that’s where, potentially, we might see the first real-world use of zero-emission fuel cell trucks,” Tam said.
Air quality improvement could be a big driver for fuel cell tucks.
“It’s critical to continue advancing zero-emission tractor-trailer truck technologies to bring products to commercialization, to provide relief to pollution-impacted communities,” said Don Anair, head of research and deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists clean vehicles program.
Toyota can have “a big impact if they stick to their commitment to bring these trucks from prototype to full commercialization,” he said.
There is a lot of industry interest in adapting fuel cells for trucking, Mike Tunnell, environmental research director for the American Transportation Research Institute, told Trucks.com.
“Lots of things still need to be worked out, including the infrastructure question — do you build hydrogen stations, battery charging stations, or both? There’s a lot of energy being put forward for fuel cells, but I don’t think we’re far enough along to have a firm grasp yet on its potential,” he said.
Some analysts believe that startup Nikola is presently doing more than Toyota to promote fuel cells for trucking.
The Salt Lake City-based company has designed, built and is testing two long-haul fuel cell truck models and has more than 1,000 reservations for leases, including an Anheuser-Busch announcement of intent to order 800 as part of the greening of its fleet.
Nikola also has plans, and is raising funding, to build a national network of hydrogen stations to serve its trucks.
A parade of Nikola trucks coming into the market “really will get the attention of the established truck manufacturers,” Shumaker said.
Toyota has the chops to build its own fuel cell truck if it chooses to.
The automaker owns Hino Motors, which plans to start building a Class 8 model for the North American market at a facility it is building in West Virginia.
That truck could be a suitable candidate for the Toyota fuel cell system.
Meantime, Toyota’s fuel cell development team is pushing forward with the Beta truck.
“Our goal with the first truck was to see if it could be done, and we did that,” said Craig Scott, senior manager for Electrified Vehicles & Technologies at Toyota North America.
“This time we’re looking at commercial viability. We want to help make a difference, a big difference when it comes to the air quality not only in the L.A. area but across the U.S. and around the globe,” he said.