Toyota Brings Fuel-Cell Technology to Big Rigs

Over the years, automakers have poured millions into researching and developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But most drivers aren't quite ready to swap their gas-powered or hybrid cars for a fuel-cell powered one, so car makers have pivoted their fuel cell know-how to other applications.

Toyota, for example, leverages fuel cells to power public buses in Japan as part of its Hino commercial vehicle unit, while another division makes fuel-cell forklifts. This week, Toyota announced a new project to test a hydrogen-powered big rig at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

At major ports, diesel-fueled drayage trucks that move cargo containers around belch large amounts of emissions. At the Port of Houston, for example, more than one-third of the air pollution produced by the facility comes from roughly 3,000 drayage vehicles, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, much of it from older trucks.

The Project Portal truck concept Toyota unveiled this week is designed to assess the feasibility of using fuel-cell technology in heavy-duty applications such as drayage duties. If successful, Toyota envisions using hydrogen fuel-cell technology to allow trucks to haul freight around ports "quietly, quickly, and without producing any emissions," it said in a statement.

The Kenworth truck Toyota converted to run on hydrogen produces more than 670 horsepower and 1,325 pound feet of torque using two fuel-cell stacks and a 12kWh battery from Toyota's Mirai passenger vehicle. The concept's gross combined weight capacity is 80,000 pounds, while its estimated range per fill is more than 200 miles under normal drayage operation, according to Toyota.

I spoke with Bob Carter, Toyota Motor North America Executive Vice President of Sales (above), at the event in Los Angeles just after Project Portal was unveiled. The backdrop for our conversation was a gigantic cargo ship stacked with hundreds of containers.

"What's fascinating is that 42,500 of these cargo containers move through these two ports each day," Carter pointed out. "To move those within the port means there's thousands of diesel trucks driving round every day. So the environmental and emissions benefits of using fuel cell vehicle is massive."

Absolutely No Emissions

The impetus for Project Portal came about from Toyota's work with organizations such as the California Air Resources Board and California Energy Commission, which have been promoting alternative fuel vehicles to meet the state's tough emission standard and have focused on improving air at these two massive ports. "The beauty of this truck is there's absolutely no emissions," Carter noted.

He added that while Project Portal is focused on moving containers around ports, it's also a test bed for other applications. Carter said that the prototype truck's 200-mile range means there's "feasibility of using this for long-haul applications."

Toyota's unveiling of a hydrogen big rig comes on the heels of Tesla's announcement last week that it's working on an all-electric semi. In typical cavalier fashion, Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk has dismissed hydrogen fuel for vehicle as "fool cells."

"The question that comes up is why not go full electric," Carter acknowledged. "Project Portal is essentially an electric vehicle, since when you add fuel cells to an electric vehicle it generates electricity on demand. To duplicate this capability with a full electric vehicle, the batteries would have to be nearly as long as the trailer itself," he said.

"You also add a tremendous amount of weight and expense, and the recharge time for batteries with this capability would be measured in days, not hours," Carter said. "Whereas with fuel cell technology, recharge time is 20 minutes."

But even that's a long time for truckers to wait to refuel. And even with the potential of an application like Project Portal, we'll probably have to also wait a while before we see hydrogen fuel cell semis on the highway.

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