Toyota’s long-awaited hydrogen fuel cell electric truck is finally hitting the road, almost six months after the company first unveiled the clean and quiet Class 8 drayage truck.

The custom-built prototype will haul imported Toyota parts from the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to warehousing and distribution operations in Southern California, some as many as 100 miles away. The program, which Toyota is calling “Project Portal,” will run indefinitely starting Oct. 23.

The test is designed to develop operating cost and reliability data to support Toyota’s contention that fuel cell electric trucks are an economically feasible alternative to both standard diesel drayage trucks and the new crop of battery-electric trucks just entering the market.

“We are excited to start the world’s first test of a heavy-duty fuel cell truck,” said Andrew Lund, Toyota’s chief engineer on the project. He told Trucks.com that Toyota has quietly been testing the truck under varying load conditions around the ports since August and will be putting it into real commercial-duty operation later this month. The truck will be operated by Toyota drivers working through port-based drayage company Southern Counties Express.

Testing at Toyota’s facility in Arizona and at the ports since the truck’s April unveiling has led to “some software updates” and the addition of supplementary air ducts to increase airflow for cooling the under-hood electronics, said Takehito Yokoo, Toyota North America’s senior executive engineer for fuel cell development.

Fuel cell vehicles are powered by electric motors but don’t need bulky, heavy battery packs to store the energy. Instead, they make their own power by pulling electrons from compressed hydrogen in a process that takes place in a fairly compact fuel cell stack. There’s no combustion and no tailpipe emissions, although the present process for producing fuel quality compressed hydrogen is not emissions-free.

The technology isn’t limited to trucks. It debuted in modern passenger vehicles several years ago and now Toyota, Honda and Hyundai have passenger cars in the California market that use fuel cell electric propulsion systems.

Although fuel cell technology’s feasibility hasn’t yet been demonstrated, many analysts believe hydrogen fuel cell and battery-electric systems – along with hybrids that combine electric drive with cleaner internal combustion engines – will begin to dominate in short-haul commercial trucking applications. The same theory holds true for passenger vehicles, especially as the transportation industry moves away from fossil fuels under tightening emissions regulations and global uncertainty around fossil fuel price and availability.

“This has been a sea-change year in commercial trucking,” said Bill Van Amburg, executive vice president of CalStart, a Pasadena-based clean transportation technologies coalition.

“It’s not just a lot of innovators doing things,” Van Amburg told Trucks.com.

Project Portal Toyota fuel cell truck angle side

Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell electric truck. (Photo: Toyota)

Major suppliers as well as engine and truck manufacturers are “starting to turn the switch,” he said. “Electrification is starting to take off in some segments, especially transit buses.”

Van Amburg expects to see an influx of medium-duty products in the near term, followed by activity in the heavy-duty segment in the mid-term.

The causes, he said, include clean air regulations and potential bans on combustion engines in Europe as well as China – the world’s largest car and truck market. In the U.S., states such as California have the ability to adopt stricter standards than the federal government.

And while diesel and gasoline prices remain relatively low in the U.S., the long-term price stability and availability of fossil fuels for transportation remains a concern.

“Fossil fuels are a huge balance of trade issue in China, India and Japan, which have no domestic oil production,” Van Amburg said.

Toyota and other companies that are developing battery- and fuel cell electric trucks believe they are leading a wholesale transformation of the industry. They also argue that in addition to air quality improvement and fuel stability, electric propulsion systems can bring significant long-term operating savings to trucking fleet operators.

In addition to Toyota, propulsion systems developer U.S. Hybrid and truck maker Kenworth have said they will be developing hydrogen fuel cell electric systems for Class 8 drayage trucks.

Nikola Motor is developing a fuel cell powered Class 8 long-haul tractor-trailer combo that will be able to refuel at a national network of Nikola-built hydrogen stations. Bosch, a major global components supplier, is developing an electric-drive axle system for the Nikola truck and has a large and growing electrification unit.

General Motors, one of the world’s biggest car and truck producers, recently unveiled a heavy-duty fuel cell truck concept and has said that 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.

Toyota Project portal hydrogen fuel cell truck

Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell electric truck. (Photo: Toyota)

On the battery-electric front, Tesla plans to unveil a Tesla Class 8 electric tractor – likely for drayage use – on November 16. The Tesla truck is slated for 2020 production. The launch of the electric semi has been delayed twice now as Tesla struggles with production issues for its new Model 3 electric sedan.

Others with trucks already in the market or under development include Chinese manufacturer BYD, a major electric truck and bus maker partly owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway; diesel engine giant Cummins Inc., which is developing its own electric powertrain; and Kansas City’s Orange EV, a developer of heavy-duty electric tractors for port terminal work.

Wrightspeed, a California company, makes range-extended turbine-electric powertrains for the refuse truck industry; Texas-based Peterbilt showed a Class 8 electric refuse truck at an industry expo earlier this year; and Indiana’s Workhorse Group is developing the W15 electric pickup truck for fleet duty. It also has an electric delivery van in the competition for a U.S. Postal Service fleet replacement contract.

Others in the medium-duty class include Mitsubishi-Fuso, a unit of Daimler Trucks, which just launched the first factory-built line of electric work trucks with eCanter. Los Angeles-based Chanje Energy is a Chinese-backed startup with a Class 5 electric delivery van.

Read Next: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trucks: Holy Grail or Hot Potato

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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