One of the most ambitious experiments we’ve seen in hydrogen fuel-cell power is Toyota’s “Project Portal.” It's a Class 8 heavy-duty semi-truck that can haul freight without burning gallons of diesel like traditional big rigs. Instead, it uses a unique hydrogen fuel system derived from the one found in the Toyota Mirai fuel-cell production car. It uses two Mirai fuel stacks and a 12-kilowatt battery giving the truck impressive performance numbers of 670 horsepower and 1,325 foot-pounds of torque. The truck can haul up to 80,000 pounds.
Having completed 4,000 miles of travel around the port of Los Angeles, Project Portal is ready for action. It has been practicing short routes, hauling increasing amounts of weight to ensure it can reliably haul cargo before becoming part of a real fleet of trucks. Transportation company Southern Counties Express is now ready to add Project Portal to its regular fleet delivering goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. to rail yards and warehouses.
While there’s a huge advantage by emitting nothing but water vapor, Project Portal has some obvious disadvantages compared with traditional trucks. There biggest issues are range and infrastructure. It can only go about 200 miles in normal operation on a full fuel cell and the hydrogen fueling station network is still in its infancy.
We reached out to Toyota asking what advantages a hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain has over a plug-in EV when applied to a big rig. A few advantages Toyota cited for hydrogen were quicker charging, a longer range which enables more route flexibility, better performance across conditions like cold weather, superior scalability, and perhaps most importantly for a semi, better cargo capacity thanks to weight savings over heavy EV batteries.
The success of hydrogen-powered freight is likely dependent on the widespread adoption of fuel-cell cars. If the cars are there, the infrastructure will be there. With electric cars growing rapidly and hydrogen at a bit of a stand-still, we can’t help but wonder if plug-in trucks will win the race against hydrogen.