Future Semi-Classic? Toyota Rolls Out Hydrogen-Powered Tractor Unit

Photo: Toyota

Toyota may soon be positioned to make two leaps in a single bound. In rolling out its hydrogen-fueled “Project Portal” tractor unit, the company expands beyond the size of existing trucks offered through its Hino brand. The impetus for leapfrogging to a trailer-hauling unit derives from Toyota’s need to make the most of its investment into hydrogen fuel-cell technology for passenger cars like the finally-released-for-real Mirai. The “Portal” language stems from the unit’s initially projected range of only about 200 miles in normal drayage service. 


Photo: Toyota

Company officials at Toyota’s April 19 launch promised to use the trucks as part of a feasibility study in and around the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, as well as on short hauls throughout the basin (especially to the intermodal rail yards in Vernon). Daily hauls in this type of service would be unlikely to exceed 200 miles. Operation is virtually silent; while emissions consist solely of pure H2O.


Photo: Hino Trucks

Toyota’s popular and well-regarded Hino trucks are currently limited to light- and medium-duty versions (GVWs from about 15,000 to 35,000 lbs) in either conventional or cabover configurations. Typical applications include box trucks, landscaper units, bucket lift platforms, large shuttle vans, and single tankers. Brand badging on the heavy-duty (up to 80,000 GVW) “Project Portal” trucks is pointedly obscure at the moment.


Photo: Arroyo Trucking

The twin ports at LA and Long Beach now permit only Certified Clean Idle units (when diesel-powered) to make pick-ups and deliveries around the docks, almost exclusively in the form of containerized goods. The clean idle designation and accompanying sticker apply to diesel vehicles of model year 2008 or newer equipped with diesel particulate filters. Nonetheless, no idling beyond five minutes is allowed in California, including idling for sleeper berth use. In fact, even school buses must shut down within 30 seconds of arrival. Independents and small fleet operators have objected to the implementation timeline, but the rule stands [https://www.arb.ca.gov/msprog/truck-idling/factsheet.pdf]. Some exceptions apply.


Photo: John Malmin/LA Times; 1955

As part of a broader push for clean-air technologies, these vehicles and their kin have helped push down smog alerts in LA-area communities by up to 95% since the mid-1950’s. In 1978, southern Californians suffered 23 days with second-stage smog alerts that called for industrial shutdowns and the suspension of after-school sports [Washington Post; Jan. 1, 1985]. Subsequent years have seen sharp reductions in Stage 1 days, while Stage 2 days have become as rare as snake toes. University of Southern California scientists note that children in the region are breathing better than they did in 1994, and that the percentage of kids with abnormally poor lung function has dropped by more than half since then [National Geographic; Mar. 4, 2015].


Photo: TFC Recycling

Other technologies, like compressed natural gas (CNG), have long been making inroads in light-to-medium duty and municipal applications. Auto drivers certainly experience far less soot, odor, and noxious emissions when following these vehicles down surface streets as they make their rounds.


Photo: Toyota

A prominent reason for limiting the “Project Portal” test rigs to local runs is the fact that fuel cells and associated equipment consume most of the space that a sleeper cab would normally occupy. (Which renders somewhat fanciful Toyota’s supplied cutaway image of a tractor-trailer motoring across Utah.) In Western states at least, this drawback could be potentially overcome by increasing the tractor’s wheelbase, though the overall length would still count against state-imposed limits and eat into paying cargo volume. Toyota expects its hydrogen-powered trucks to be priced competitively with gasoline models if and when H2-only trucks reach the retail market. [Daily Breeze; Apr. 20, 2017]

Photo: Toyota

And, judging from a quick peek at some of the advance publicity photos, it seems that sheer complexity could become an issue as miles pile up and heavy overhaul service intervals begin rearing their heads. I’m no Jimmy-jammer, and I still find even automatic transmissions to be unnecessarily complicated, but the about only things familiar to me in the above photo are a big electric motor and a fluid reservoir. Wow.

Photo: Toyota

Toyota’s surprise announcement came less than a week after Tesla’s ever-optimistic CEO Elon Musk tweeted that his company has an electric truck set to be unveiled in September.
Musk’s tweet led at least one Wall Street analyst to downgrade shares of heavy-truck maker PACCAR and diesel-engine giant Cummins, based on concerns that Tesla could emerge as a dominant player in the market for zero-emission heavy trucks. The Tesla truck would likely be battery-electric; forgoing hydrogen power for the near future at least. Still, Musk has yet to show his truck, much less explain how, when, or in what factory it would be built. Toyota has now officially fired a shot across his bow. [Motley Fool; Apr. 20, 2017].


Photo: Toyota

And, just like how the butcher used to wrap up an extra bone for your dog, I thought I’d throw in this short-bed beauty for those CCer’s who grew up thinking Hi-Lux!, whenever “Toyota” and “truck” were used in the same sentence.