Toyota Motor Corp., a pioneer in the development of hydrogen fuel cell electric drive systems for passenger vehicles, is considering using that technology to develop a heavy-duty fuel cell truck.
The Japanese automaker has formed a special team within Toyota’s U.S.-based research and development unit to work on a fuel cell electric powertrain for use in a heavy-duty, or Class 8 truck.
Company insiders told Trucks.com Thursday that Toyota believes hydrogen fuel-cell systems can be scaled to meet most transportation applications and that it wants to test the technology to examine feasibility for both cost and performance. It would base the test in California, which has most of the nation’s existing base of hydrogen fuel facilities and is actively pursuing technologies that will reduce air pollution from the statewide freight handling system.
Toyota already is developing hydrogen-powered heavy-duty vehicles.
Last month, the company said it will start to sell fuel cell buses starting next year. Working with the Bureau of Transportation of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Toyota plans to put 100 of the buses into service ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Toyota said it sees hydrogen as an important source of energy for the future.
“It is good to see Toyota moving forward with this,” said David Reichmuth, senior vehicles engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Pollution from medium- and heavy-duty trucks accounts for about 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by transportation in the U.S., Reichmuth said.
Using fuel cell powertrains for heavy-duty trucking operations also offers the potential to reduce harmful diesel emissions from urban areas, especially neighborhoods adjacent to highways and ports, he said.
The automaker revealed its fuel cell study in the wake of an announcement earlier this month by Logan, Utah-based startup Nikola Motor Co. that it has developed a fuel cell electric Class 8 tractor, the Nikola One, that it will debut in Salt Lake City on Dec. 1.
Unlike battery-electric systems, which are not feasible for most heavy-duty trucking because of weight and range limitations, fuel cell powertrains permit unlimited travel as long as there is a supply of hydrogen fuel. A fuel cell truck produces the electricity needed to power its electric motor by converting hydrogen to electricity in a thermo-chemical process.
Fuel cell vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions, although the process of producing their compressed hydrogen fuel uses a lot of electricity, and electrical generation produces greenhouse gases.
Fuel cell systems are smaller and lighter than battery-electric systems. Although they require fairly bulky, pressurized hydrogen fuel tanks, those tanks can be refilled in about the same amount of time it takes to fill a diesel tank. Battery packs for battery-electric trucks can take hours to recharge.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology offers the same zero tailpipe emissions advantage of battery electric trucks but can be more scaled to meet particular trucking tasks, Reichmuth said.
“When you make battery systems twice as big, they become twice as heavy and twice as expensive,” he said. “It’s easier to make a hydrogen tank bigger and it is cheaper and ligther than batteries.”
While reliable fuel efficiency data for heavy trucks with fuel cell electric powertrains isn’t yet available, hydrogen fuel cell systems in passenger vehicles, including the Toyota Mirai, have been delivering the equivalent of 60 miles per gallon fuel efficiency, more than 50 percent better than typical diesel passenger vehicle engines.
Nikola Motors has said that its system will deliver a fuel efficiency equivalent to 15 to 20 miles per gallon and a range per hydrogen fill-up of 800 to 1,200 miles, depending on load and terrain.
Nikola also said it has developed a hydrogen fueling station for its heavy-duty truck fuel cell, and Toyota has been active in financing development and installation of hydrogen stations in the U.S. for passenger vehicles. That technology could easily be scaled up for trucking applications including fueling stations at highway truck stops and in commercial trucking fleet depots.
Toyota said in its announcement that further details about its study and a potential fuel cell truck would be announced “in coming months.”
Other automakers are looking at ways to introduce fuel cell technology to various trucking operations. Last month, General Motors Co. and the U.S. Army unveiled a jointly developed hydrogen fuel cell-powered pickup truck called the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2.
It is a collaboration between the automaker and the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC — and represents an early step by the military to wean itself off fossil fuel.