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Tina Casey headshot

World's First Hydrogen Fuel Cell Truck Goes Up Against Tesla EV

By Tina Casey

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles have been slow to catch on compared to their battery-operated cousins. Now, all of a sudden it looks like we'll have a chance to see how the competition plays out in the heavy-duty truck sector.

Last week Elon Musk pitched a new all-electric truck for Tesla. And this week Toyota announced Project Portal, a fuel cell truck feasibility study at the Port of Los Angeles.

Game on!

Toyota and Project Portal

Fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles. Instead of storing all of their electricity in a big battery pack, they combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity on the go. They still need a battery (so does a gasmobile, for that matter), but it is far smaller and lighter.

Battery EVs are catching on more quickly, helped along by the marketing genius of Elon Musk.

However, fuel cells seem ready for their closeup.

Toyota is a leading early adopter of fuel cell EVs with its Mirai passenger car. Last fall, the automaker upped the ante with an aggressive new ad campaign and has been working with other stakeholders to build a network of hydrogen fuel stations. Last year it introduced fuel cell buses in Japan, too.

Toyota has also begun planning ahead for a sustainable hydrogen economy. Last year it launched a demo project in two coastal cities in Japan that uses wind power to produce hydrogen by "splitting" water. (The main source of hydrogen is still natural gas.) The renewable hydrogen is used locally to power fuel cell forklifts.

Project Portal translates Toyota's fuel cell know-how into the heavy-duty trucking sector.

It's part of a larger, ongoing project aimed at cutting emissions at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Called the Clean Air Action Plan, this effort has been under way since 2005 and has already made significant progress.

One sticking point, though, is the continued use of diesel trucks at the port. The Action Plan's Clean Truck program has been effective, but according to the Port of Los Angeles, drayage trucks are still the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. They also come in near the top for particulates and other targeted pollutants.

Clean Truck or no Clean Truck, the drayage load at both ports clocks in at 19,000 containers every day, a staggering volume that accounts for the persistence of high emissions.

A real hydrogen fuel cell truck

Toyota and the Port of Los Angeles are not messing around. The new truck will be expected to meet or beat the performance of conventional Class 8 diesel trucks, which are in the heavy-duty category.

This sounds about right:

"The truck generates more than 670 horsepower and 1325 pound feet of torque from two Mirai fuel cell stacks," Toyota said of the vehicle. "The concept's gross combined weight capacity is 80,000 pounds, and its estimated driving range is more than 200 miles per fill, under normal drayage operation."
Aside from eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, the new fuel cell truck could outperform conventional trucks on acceleration and other markers.

Thumbs up for the new truck

Battery EVs used to get the bum's rush from Rush Limbaugh and other conservative pundits, and Republican legislators continue to throw up obstacles to widespread EV adoption.

So far, though, Toyota seems to have the automotive media on its side. Its press release announcing the new truck is all over the Intertubes.

Trucks.com got a sneak peek and created a time-lapse video of Project Portal and how the new truck moved from drawing board to prototype.

Road Show gave zero-emission technology a manly thumbs up with this headline: "Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell truck is the strong silent type."

Motor1 let pictures do all the talking, with an 11-shot photo gallery featuring the new truck on the open road against a dramatic sunset.

What about that "other" electric truck?

Toyota better act fast if it wants to corner the zero-emission, heavy-duty truck market in the U.S. A startup called Nikola Motor Co. is already in partnership with trucking company Ryder for an ambitious project that includes a network of renewable hydrogen stations.

Meanwhile, last week Elon Musk's Twitter account twitched out the following bare bones message:

"Tesla Semi truck unveil set for September. Team has done an amazing job. Seriously next level."
That touched off a firestorm of speculation. Wired enthused over the potentials, pointing out that the sheer size of a semi enables it to carry a heavy load of batteries to provide for a hefty range.

Jack Stewart of Wired puts the range in the neighborhood of 300 miles. That's not nearly enough for long-distance hauling, but it could easily put a Tesla semi to work at seaports and other urban areas.

Yep, game on.

Photo (cropped): courtesy of Toyota.





Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey