Thus far, the push for cleaner personal transport has led to battery electric vehicles developing a strong foothold in the marketplace. Hydrogen cars exist, but they're typically only available on restrictive leases in specific areas. However, battery technology has its limitations, particularly in high-load applications like commercial haulage. It's here that hydrogen might find its niche, and Toyota is betting on that as it develops a plant to build fuel cell drivetrains in Kentucky from 2023.
The project involves establishing a dedicated production line for fuel cell modules at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky. These will be destined for use in heavy truck applications, including semi-trucks—the likes of which Toyota has been developing with subsidiary Hino.
The aim is to sell integrated fuel cell drive modules that manufacturers can roll into their own designs. “Heavy-duty truck manufacturers will be able to buy a fully integrated and validated fuel cell electric drive system," said Tetsuo Ogawa, president and chief executive officer of Toyota Motor North America, "allowing them to offer their customers an emissions-free option in the Class 8 heavy-duty segment.”
Toyota's platform will offer up to 160 kW of continuous power, and will weigh in the ballpark of 1400 pounds—far lighter than battery electric options for trucking applications. The kit is sold as a package, ready-to-go, including a high-voltage battery, motors, transmission and the necessary hydrogen storage system. The aim is to deliver a fuel cell drivetrain that can give a Class 8 truck 300 miles of range when fully loaded to 80,000 lbs.
Hydrogen has promise as a fuel for trucking, as it sidesteps many of the issues that have held back fuel cell cars thus far. Perhaps the biggest factor has been the lack of infrastructure; thus far, California remains the only state with any appreciable hydrogen refueling infrastructure. This doesn't affect commercial users as badly, as refueling stations can be installed at depots, rather than needing to be scattered across the road network far and wide for broader public use.
Trucking is also the perfect application for hydrogen for other reasons. Heavy loads tend to reduce range, meaning electric trucks need huge battery packs to maintain decent range—which adds further weight and can potentially limit payloads. The comparatively high energy density of hydrogen fuel negates this problem. There's also the obvious benefit of quick refueling, something which electric trucks can't yet match with even the fastest chargers.
Toyota's move suggests that the company sees real value in continuing down the road of fuel cell development. While it may never catch on in the passenger vehicle segment, it could yet see great success for heavy duty applications.