Toyota Motor Co. tends to have a road map when throwing cash at projects — and once those projects become public knowledge, chances are that commercialization is part of the plan.

At least that’s the likely route for the giant automaker as it uses its “Project Portal” program to test the viability of hydrogen fuel cell technology — first developed for the Mirai passenger sedan — for trucking applications.

Toyota is trying to build a market case for its prototype Project Portal Class 8 electric drayage truck, slated to soon start making zero-emission trial runs from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. If successful, the logical progression would involve the company’s scaling fuel cells for use in other freight and passenger vehicles.

Planners at Toyota demur, cautioning that it’s far too early for such projections. But Craig Scott, senior manager for advanced technology marketing at Toyota North America, acknowledged that the company is considering new markets.

“We’ve done pretty wide local studies into which classes are needed in what parts of the world, and it is natural that fuel cell trucks could find their way into Class 5 and 6 delivery and work trucks in some parts the U.S. as well as in Europe and Japan,” he said. “If we can do this in the heaviest class of trucks, then we can do it in just about anything else, but it is just too soon to start putting pegs into holes.”

But Toyota is already laying the groundwork, recently launching a Toyota-brand fuel cell transit bus in Japan, the first of 100 it has said it will build for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The company has also been quietly testing a fuel cell pickup truck called the Hydra.

The truck, based on the popular Toyota Tundra full-size pickup, uses a fuel cell system borrowed from the Mirai sedan, powering an electric motor that’s a duplicate of one of the two linked in the Project Portal Class 8 truck. The Hydra has served as a rolling test bench in Japan to help develop the electronic control system for Toyota’s prototype Class 8 drayage truck.

If the Los Angeles drayage test goes well, Toyota could expand its fuel cell ambitions from Class 8 short-haul trucks to local delivery and work trucks. From there, the company could try the technology in heavy-duty pickups and vans. Fleet-based vehicles with such an electric powertrain could be serviced and fueled from centralized depots.

Already, Toyota’s Hino Trucks arm is a major player in the diesel-hybrid Class 5 market. The technology used in a diesel-hybrid system is “a kissing cousin” to a full hydrogen fuel cell system, said Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons.

Project Portal Toyota fuel cell truck side angle

“Project Portal” Toyota fuel cell truck. (Photo: Toyota)

But zero-emission long-haul freight transport using hefty Class 8 trucks? That’s still some time away for Toyota.

Competition already exists — Salt Lake City-based start-up Nikola Motors has said it’s testing big rigs powered by hydrogen fuel cells and has pledged to build a nationwide hydrogen fueling network as a supplement to its trucks.

Toyota would have to do the same, either leveraging existing truck stops or building from scratch in new locations. That’s an expensive undertaking, and one that Scott says the company is reluctant to pursue.

After all, Toyota already knows the intense financial burden of building a support infrastructure for a clean-tech car. A two- to four-outlet station designed for passenger vehicles such as the Mirai, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell sedan or the Hyundai Tucson fuel cell crossover costs $2 million or so.

Toyota and Honda both offer subsidies to retail station developers, hoping to encourage more construction of facilities compatible with fuel cell vehicles. But commercial stations would be even pricier because they’d need to store and pump higher volumes of hydrogen.

Scott said Toyota would “certainly look to other stakeholders to provide fueling solutions.” Building hydrogen stations for commercial trucks is “much more appealing” to private station developers and fuel suppliers because of the higher volumes involved, he said.

Whatever Toyota’s ultimate plan, the timeline won’t be short.

Next up, Toyota will build “an optimized prototype truck” that will collect data on fuel economy, acceleration, hauling capacity and other features, Scott said. Construction could occur even as testing on the drayage truck prototype continues.

“We will start building that next truck as soon as we determine there is a likelihood we can move ahead with the project,” Scott said.

Watch Toyota Create “Project Portal”, its Top-Secret Hydrogen Fuel Cell Truck

About The Author

John O'Dell

John O'Dell is a Trucks.com contributing writer, green technology expert and editor of TheGreenCarGuy.com. He previously wrote for Edmunds.com and the Los Angeles Times, and served on the National Research Council committee that authored the seminal report “Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels.”

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