The future is coming—and it will be quiet.
- Toyota is developing and producing a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain for big trucks.
- The Toyota Fuel Cell powertrain is going into production in 2023.
- Toyota says that this powertrain solution can retrofit diesel power and features a similar weight penalty to the rig.
While the jury is still out on whether hydrogen fuel cells will play a big role in powering future consumer vehicles, it does show some promise in filling the long-range trucking space. That’s the thinking at Toyota, in any case, as the automaker has invested heavily in hydrogen-electric vehicles. This tech is still years away from seeing mass adoption on the roadways, but Toyota is readying its powertrain to see production start next year. As a simple proof of concept, the folks at Toyota stuffed their powertrain into a Kenworth T680 and took yours truly along for a ride.
Before we get into the meat of how this thing felt, let’s talk about the hardware. This once-diesel-burning Kenworth rig has had its oil-burning engine and most of its supporting structure removed. Behind the cab, the team at Toyota fit six hydrogen fuel cells. These cells feed the fuel stack that generates electricity for the electric motors. The power travels through a four-speed automated-manual transmission of undisclosed origin before traveling to the drive axle at the rear.
Now, if you’re seeing hydrogen storage and thinking Hindenbu rg, you’re not alone. Having a bunch of hydrogen stashed behind you can seem scary, despite the extensive safety tests run on the pressure vessels used to store said hydrogen—including being shot by a .50 caliber bullet.
Toyota’s Chris Rovik, executive program manager, wheeled the trailer-less rig and let me ride along. With no trailer in tow, the truck felt, well, like a big rig. Even as a passenger, you can feel how much power the system has because of how effortlessly the bob-tailed semi hustles from a standing start.
What’s more surprising is the absence of a clacking diesel mill and its exhaust, making the cabin eerily quiet. So quiet that it might push truck manufacturers to start chasing some of this noise away. Rovik notes, “All these new things that light-duty manufacturers have had to worry about for a long time are now suddenly more meaningful to them.”
The squeaking and jostling inside that cabin might also have something to do with the prototypical nature of this rig. Fortunately for folks at Toyota, that noise, vibration, and harshness problem won’t be theirs to solve. Toyota isn’t going to take what it’s learned from its Prius, Tundra, or Mirai programs and suddenly churn out Class 8 trucks. Instead, Toyota is reaching out to partners to supply these powertrains to churn out hydrogen-powered trucks.
Aside from the distinct lack of noise, and the reduced gear spread, the truck felt like a big rig. Sure, there wasn’t a trailer attached, which would likely dampen some of the spring in its hydrogen-fed step, but the transition to electrified powertrains should give big trucks the same torque advantage that we’re seeing in passenger cars.
If you’re curious about wear, serviceability, and longevity, Toyota has, obviously, thought of those, too. The team at Toyota suggests that this powertrain should live about as long as you’d expect a diesel engine. Servicing the power unit is effectively limited to just filters, which keep clean the incoming air, which then bonds with the hydrogen and creates electricity.
It’s hard to say how these powertrains will actually pan out until they’re unleashed en masse on public roadways. Though, if folks do adopt these Toyota power solutions, they might be seen more prominently at shipyards or areas with shorter runs—at least from the jump. The lack of fueling infrastructure and the relatively short 300-mile range when pulling 80,000 pounds would make it a challenge for long hauls.
You might start to see these hitting your local truck stop sometime next year, when Toyota is set to launch this powertrain into production. Meanwhile, details about production partnerships still not available to the public. It’s going to be interesting to see which solution long-range trucking takes with alternative power, and this Toyota option is an interesting entry into the future.
Wesley Wren Wesley Wren has spent his entire life around cars, whether it’s dressing up as his father’s 1954 Ford for Halloween as a child, repairing cars in college or collecting frustrating pieces of history—and most things in between.