Toyota Motor Corp. has a master hydrogen plan that’s a lot like playing with Lego blocks.
It starts with what is known as a fuel cell stack that can be mated to an electric powertrain to create a vehicle with no tailpipe emissions.
For a passenger car such as the Mirai, one fuel cell stack will suffice. A Class 8 heavy-duty truck like the Toyota prototype running out of the Port of Long Beach, Calif., needs two. Just a half works for a forklift. The company scales up or down depending on the vehicle's class requirements.
Doug Murtha, the group vice president of corporate strategy and planning for Toyota’s U.S. sales division, sat down with Trucks.com recently for an in-depth discussion of the automaker’s heavy-duty fuel cell truck and its hydrogen strategy. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
What’s the status of Project Portal, the Class 8 fuel cell truck prototype?
We've got 5,000 miles on it now. We're delivering cargo around the L.A. Basin — Toyota parts and supplies — and learning from that. It is largely demo hauling. We're more concerned about pulling mass than what we’re actually hauling. It's a chance to go over overpasses and go up grades and see how the system responds. We're trying to figure out what we would do different next time based on what we're learning.
What’s the next step?
If the hauling starts showing some promise there's the prospect to make a larger demonstration fleet. Whether that means we necessarily get into the business or use it as just some exploratory thing, I don't know at this point.
What do you see as its first potential commercial application?
The logical application of this is basic drayage. Going from the Port of Long Beach to the railheads and Ontario and that part of town. That's really one proof of concept. The other is more of a delivery route. We have the opportunity within our own fleet, potentially within our parts delivery operations or our vehicle delivery operations, to use that type of a system to test the capabilities of the truck as well. We have a Los Angeles parts warehouse that makes daily runs to dealerships. That's a potential test scenario for the product as well.
What have you learned so far?
We have said that this first is really a proof of concept. We literally disassembled a couple of Mirais, took the parts and attached them to a larger motor and battery. We're learning things about the durability of the wiring harnesses, about battery capacity and about the placement of components. Honestly, we're learning things about vibration and different aspects of the use case that are not part of our usual light-duty vehicle development. It's what we need to know and understand in something like this versus a passenger car.
Some of the things that we've already had to rework are what the engineers pretty much told us out of the gates. I think we knew that, again, based on the pilfered parts list we are working with, and some of the stuff wasn't going to apply to a larger application.
Do you also see hydrogen as a useful fuel for heavy-duty trucks and buses?
We're taking a portfolio approach. We know that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. We're approaching this globally. You look at a market like Norway where they've got cheap hydroelectric or renewable electric, that's probably going to be a market that skews more toward a battery-electric vehicle solution than a market like Japan where they don't have those opportunities. They're nuclear-dependent, and so fuel cells make more sense there. You have other markets like the U.S. where it may actually break down regionally.
As we look at technology application across a lineup, anywhere from very small vehicles to Class 8 trucks, the battery-electric solution tends to lend itself better to the lower mass, these last-mile applications. Vehicles where fuel cell technology does play well are at the large end of the scale, the high-mass, in some cases 24-hour duty-cycle type uses where the weight of the battery and the recharging time even under a speed-charging scenario still can present disadvantages for a commercial user. Then you've got this gray area in between that can be serviced by hybrids, and plug-ins, and fuel cells coming down to vehicles the size of a Mirai.
What will hold back fuel cells?
One of the challenges with hydrogen is infrastructure. That's no secret. In the drayage application where the vehicle is basically going from point A to point B, that's a much simpler infrastructure solution. You need fuel at one, maybe at most two locations. You can deliver that, and store that, and produce that in large quantities and really get around some of the challenges of the infrastructure buildout.
What lessons have you learned so far about developing a hydrogen infrastructure?
Just the permitting process for a station is complicated. You have to figure out who you need to speak with in each city, what role does the fire department play, the electric company, the property owners? I also think that being the first city to go out on a limb and allow one of these within your boundaries is a bigger step than being the 31st to do it. We learned that in California the fire code is fairly centrally managed. If you can work with the authorities in Sacramento to set some guidelines, you get some efficiencies. What we've learned in the Northeast is it's still very much a local decision. You have to go city by city to get some of these things sold and done, not to mention the fact that you're just dealing with a larger number of states with the smaller regional breakdown. That's been a challenge.