Toyota is launching a hydrogen Hilux pickup truck concept, using a hydrogen fuel cell to power an electric motor.
Automotive manufacturers are preparing for the future in a more renewable way. Electric cars and vehicles are growing in numbers, but a couple of manufacturers are looking at hydrogen power as an alternative method of propulsion. Toyota is one of those that is doing so, and it recently took the covers off its new hydrogen fuel cell electric Hilux pickup truck prototype. While only a concept for now, 10 are on the way from Toyota for safety, functionality and durability testing.
With electric power still leaving a few question marks, exploring hydrogen power is a good safeguard for the future. Toyota’s inferences from its test could reshape the automotive industry even further than it is already doing so.
Toyota has been one of the pioneers of hydrogen propulsion, with the Mirai one of a few hydrogen vehicles available to the public. Naturally, part of the reasoning behind Toyota’s investigations with this Hilux is to move towards a zero carbon future. Unlike other manufacturers, Toyota has committed to a multi-path strategy to find the best powertrain solution for future vehicles. The others are hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric and battery electric. All of these may suit different operating environments across the world. Ironically, Toyota is further behind in the full electric race than other manufacturers.
To come up with this new Hilux prototype, Toyota has taken core elements from the Mirai sedan, a car that has been in production for nearly 10 years. The hydrogen fuel cell produces no tailpipe emissions, other than pure water, with the hydrogen in the Hilux stored in three high-pressure fuel tanks. The hybrid battery for the Hilux stores electricity produced on-board the truck by the fuel cell and it is now positioned on the rear load deck of the Toyota. This helps to ensure there isn’t a loss of cabin space for the occupants of the Hilux.
Toyota has given some big numbers for the hydrogen Hilux, suggesting that the pickup truck has a range of 365 miles between its refills. However, that is still some way off what the Hilux can do with a regular engine. In Australia, their Toyota Hilux has the turbodiesel 2.8-liter engine and that can go 715 miles between its fill ups. So there is progress to be made before a hydrogen fuel cell pickup can match its internal combustion powered counterparts for range. However, this is a concept vehicle. So things could change and develop at a rapid rate till the product reached production.
Even though this Hilux isn’t going into production Toyota is developing a production version of a hydrogen truck. In 2022, Toyota said that it was working with “allied automakers” to create small electric commercial vans, as well as a light-duty electric pickup truck with hydrogen fuel-cell technology. It isn’t going it alone, however, as it is planning to cooperate with Isuzu and Hino to develop hydrogen fuel-cell trucks. These are part of a project to create 600 electric vehicles to transport items back and forth between Tokyo and Fukushima prefecture.
There is no timeline for these trucks, but we do know that these are slated for production, and not just a prototype phase. This project along with the Toyota Hilux shows that Toyota still has a desire to see hydrogen become an alternative fuel source. New Toyota boss Koji Sato is a believer in the technology, and believes that it very much has a future within Toyota and the wider automotive industry. This is part of Sato’s philosophy that cutting emissions should not be with just electric and hybrid powertrains.
Toyota has also hinted that it might look to creating sportier vehicles with its hydrogen fuel cells. At the Fuji 24 Hours in early 2023, Toyota unveiled the Mirai Sport Concept, showcasing a more angular and muscular looking version of the hydrogen sedan. Toyota revealed nothing more about the vehicle, not even produced a press release to confirm its existence. But it's an indicator that Toyota has a wide range of uses for hydrogen power. It even showcased a hydrogen GR Yaris H2 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2023, driven by Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean himself.
Hydrogen has several advantages that make it a more interesting proposition than electric vehicles. A hydrogen fuel-cell engine works similar to an ICE, except hydrogen is now used as the fuel instead. Hydrogen is also replenished in a similar way to gasoline or diesel, via a pump, so there is no waiting around at a charging station for half an hour or so for your electric vehicle to recharge. If Toyota can use hydrogen to power an electrical powertrain, it combines the best of both worlds without needing to carry big heavy batteries around.
It would in many ways be a game changer for the industry. Internal combustion engines may disappear from the equation altogether, and there would not be as big a demand for battery production. This in turn would mean there is less need for rare materials, such as lithium, nickel and cobalt. While it is not a dealbreaker, being able to refill a vehicle much quicker at a traditional style pump will ease consumer worries of needing to sit around for ages at a charging point to replenish their energy supply. While hydrogen is available in abundance being redily available in the atmosphere, experts suggest lithium porudction will soon fall short of demand by the end of the decade.
As positive as a development this is from Toyota, hydrogen does still have one or two pitfalls. There is the obvious range problem, although some EVs struggle to produce a range most consumers would be happy with. There is the issue of hydrogen being difficult to extract and manage, thanks to its volumetric energy density being doubled by turning it from gas to liquid. It achieves its liquid state at -423.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Any fuel tank handling hydrogen will need to be very well insulated, and the pump resistant to freezing and breaking.
Storing and producing hydrogen is also expensive, and it is easier to ignite in gasoline given compressed hydrogen is explosive. Even though it has some big plus points, hydrogen does have a long way to go before it becomes a mainstream fuel source. However, Toyota’s Hilux experiment could provide the catalyst for that. If hydrogen can work and become cheaper and easier to store, the automotive world may never look back.
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