Japanese car giant Toyota is one of the few automakers pursuing hydrogen propulsion in earnest. Most hydrogen vehicles use a fuel cell to turn the gas into electricity. However, some prototype vehicles in Toyota's lineup use existing combustion engines modified to burn clean hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. We've seen a few examples of cars with these drivetrains before, but now the number under development is growing considerably. Just a few days ago, the automaker announced it will be developing a hydrogen fuel-cell-powered version of the Hilux pickup it sells abroad. Likewise, a Corolla Cross powered by hydrogen combustion was just shown off yesterday. The latter even has the engine from the GR Corolla, which makes it by far the most powerful Corolla Cross out there.
Both use know-how from the second-generation Mirai fuel-cell vehicle in order to manage the packaging on the high-pressure hydrogen tanks. In the case of the Hilux, the vehicle leans on that car's fuel-cell technology as well.
The Corolla Cross is the more interesting and complete of the two concepts. In the press release for the vehicle, the automaker states that it "firmly believes it is too early to focus on one single zero-emission solution" in terms of the future of transportation. To back this up, it states that improvements to its hydrogen combustion systems have been rapid and impressive. Its hydrogen-burning engines now produce "dynamic performance on par with a conventional petrol engine." It has also been able to reduce refueling times from around five minutes to just 1.5.
These advancements are impressive but ignore the inherent inefficiency associated with burning hydrogen in a combustion engine. The best way to produce clean hydrogen is through electrolysis. Using hydrogen in a combustion engine is also an inefficient way to use it; fuel cells can extract energy from the gas more effectively. That being said, hydrogen combustion engines are basically just modified versions of existing combustion engines. They produce fewer harmful emissions and don't require many of the supply-constrained or expensive resources that EVs require, like lithium, nickel, cobalt, etc.
All hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road today are powered by fuel cells, though. That's the technology the brand's hydrogen Hilux will feature. In fact, the components are being lifted from the current Toyota Mirai FCEV.
It's being built by Toyota Motor Manufacturing UK with funding from the government and developed in order to get a zero-emissions vehicle on the road in a somewhat popular segment in the island nation; small pickups. At this point, it's mostly being considered an "investigation," though. That means that it's unlikely there are plans for a production hydrogen Hilux in the near future.
All of that being said, it's interesting that Toyota is developing these solutions at all. To be clear, a fair amount of the development of hydrogen vehicles is funded by various governments around the world, regardless of what automaker is doing the engineering work. That doesn't mean the technology is without merit, it just means that there's hesitation on the part of brands to put a lot of their own money into hydrogen powertrains. Also, there are severe infrastructure limitations that most people with hydrogen-powered vehicles are definitely familiar with.
The energy density, fast refuel times, and ability to leverage existing combustion powertrains are all very tempting propositions, though. A future for enthusiast vehicles could include hydrogen combustion. Toyota says as much in its press release for the hydrogen Corolla Cross, stating "It is not yet possible to say if the technology will reach maturity for road cars, but there is without doubt a clear opportunity in motorsports." On that note, we should be optimistic somebody is developing this tech. Hydrogen could be the saving grace of the exhaust note and perhaps the internal combustion engine as we know it.
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