Over the years, Toyota has touted hydrogen as the fuel source for the future, favoring fuel cell vehicles even as many of its competitors went electric. But the company’s ambitions in bringing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles into the light duty sector have fallen behind schedule. However, Toyota’s efforts are proving fruitful in the heavy-duty sector, as the company now has the backing of the state of California for a major hydrogen fuel cell project. Toyota is partnering with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the California Energy Commission to study using hydrogen for big trucks, a project that can play a major role toward reducing petroleum consumption in the state.
In what it is calling “Project Portal,” Toyota and California are putting together a feasibility study to look at the potential of fuel cell technology in heavy duty trucking.
In what it is calling “Project Portal,” Toyota and California are putting together a feasibility study to look at the potential of fuel cell technology in heavy duty trucking. The auto maker is expanding its ambitions in this space beyond its main hydrogen venture, the Mirai fuel cell car. The study will explore whether hydrogen fuel cell technology is achievable for day-to-day trucking operations at the Port of Los Angeles. If Toyota’s vehicle becomes commercially viable, it will be the first automaker to successfully use hydrogen to fuel a heavy-duty truck.
“Toyota believes that hydrogen fuel cell technology has tremendous potential to become the powertrain of the future,” said Toyota Motor North America Executive Vice President Bob Carter in a statement. “Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles play a role in California’s efforts to achieve greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, improve air quality, and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” said Janea A. Scott, Commissioner, California Energy Commission.
The fuel cell stacks used for the truck in Project Portal will be the same as those used in the Mirai, with the small size allowing the truck to have more room to move freight. With the weight capacity at 80,000 pounds, the truck will have an approximate driving range of more than 200 miles per fill under normal operations. Hydrogen vehicles refill in the same short period of time as conventional gasoline vehicles—considered an advantage over natural gas and electric vehicles.
The challenges of infrastructure and cost
Although the short refueling time is a boon, the lack of infrastructure is a major problem for the deployment of hydrogen vehicles. Toyota has stepped up its investment in this area, recently partnering with Shell to boost the number of refueling stations for hydrogen vehicles in California. Fuel-cell cars, unlike electric vehicles, cannot be recharged at home, so drivers need to use public filling stations. But by the end of 2017 there will be only 50 stations in the U.S., with an overwhelming majority in California.
Toyota has stepped up its investment in infrastructure, recently partnering with Shell to boost the number of refueling stations for hydrogen vehicles in California.
Hydrogen vehicles have also come under heavy criticism for their high price point. Up-front costs for vehicles are more expensive than most of the competition, while the price of constructing a refueling station is also well above gas stations. For instance, the cost of installing a hydrogen fueling station is currently estimated at more than $750,000 for a hydrogen dispenser at an existing gasoline station, and $2.1 million to $3.3 million for a purpose-built station that dispenses only hydrogen.
Fuel costs are volatile and currently above petroleum. Currently, hydrogen prices fluctuate from $12.85 to $16.78 per kilogram, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Of course, increased scale in production could bring costs down to be competitive with the price of gasoline and diesel, but hydrogen prices would have to drop to below $8.75 per kg to make economic sense with gasoline at $3.50 per gallon. Today, gasoline in the state averages $3.07/gallon. The price for diesel, the main fuel for trucking, is at $2.95/gallon.
Advantage over natgas in trucking?
The most common substitute for petroleum in the trucking sector is natural gas, which has almost 1,000 refueling stations in the U.S. and more than 100 in California, giving it a current advantage over hydrogen. However, the refueling time for hydrogen can be much faster than natural gas. At “time-fill” stations, NGVs need to be refueled overnight. Hydrogen vehicles refill in a matter of minutes. The tests for Toyota truck in California will take place in a 70-mile radius and the company is aiming to narrow refilling time to 30-40 minutes, possibly making it more attractive than natural gas over the longer term, should the economics improve. The route predictability is key in this experiment. In cases where fleet vehicles have centralized refilling stations on a fixed route, operators have certainty and can maximize efficiency. As such, high-cost refueling routes are better suited for trucks and heavy-duty vehicles than light-duty vehicles because there is a greater return on infrastructure investments.
In cases where fleet vehicles have centralized refilling stations on a fixed route, operators have certainty and can maximize efficiency.
Fueling challenges have already impacted the nascent hydrogen vehicle market. Last year, Toyota temporarily halted the sales of its new Mirai fuel cell vehicle in California amid limited fueling infrastructure. The Mirai, which means “future” in Japanese, has a retail price above the average vehicle at $57,500 before company incentives, which include three years of complimentary fuel. So far, Toyota has sold less than 3,000 units and earlier this year it had to recall all Mirai cars due to problems with the output voltage. These instances are obvious setbacks for Toyota, which has said that hydrogen cars are part of its plan to phase-out gasoline-powered cars entirely by mid-century. Besides Toyota, only Hyundai and Honda sell models that run on hydrogen.
Can Toyota help turn around the reputation of hydrogen and make it a viable substitute for petroleum for the longer term? Project Portal in California will go a long way in answering this question.