Why Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell Hilux prototype could be the vehicle of tomorrow

Why Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell Hilux prototype could be the vehicle of tomorrow

By Jorge Hurtado

Toyota’s latest hydrogen fuel cell Hilux prototype shows progress in utilizing hydrogen fuel cell technology for a pickup truck. The prototype showcases Toyota’s commitment to carbon neutrality through developing an alternative green powertrain solution. It is designed to meet specific user needs and adapt to various local infrastructures.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are currently in development, and their widespread adoption will depend on factors such as:

  • Market demand
  • The development and improvement of infrastructure
  • Further advancements in the technology itself

The Hilux prototype is crucial in developing the next generation of fuel cell technology. Key goals for this next generation include:

  • Achieving longer life cycles for the vehicles.
  • Extending their driving ranges.
  • Reducing the overall associated costs.

This article will further examine hydrogen fuel cell technology, how it works, its key properties, and the impact of Toyota’s innovations on the automotive industry.

Why is hydrogen needed for transportation?

Hydrogen, the simplest and lightest molecule, does not produce CO2 emissions when combusted. Its heating value is three times that of oil, but production costs are also three times higher. 

Hydrogen is about 150 times more energy-dense than lithium-ion batteries by weight. This allows it to store a greater amount of energy per unit. The high energy density is crucial for efficient storage and extended driving ranges. Therefore, hydrogen offers a promising alternative for high energy storage needs in compact spaces.

Are hydrogen cars new in the market?

Car manufacturers’ venture into hydrogen powered cars is not new. Companies like Toyota, BMW, Hyundai, and Honda have been frontrunners in this field for decades. Toyota started its development back in 1992 and launched the Mirai in 2014 as one of the first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

Specifications of Toyota Mirai

Overview of Toyota – Mirai (Source)

BMW entered the hydrogen technology space in 2000 and, in 2023, released the iX5 Hydrogen pilot fleet. Hyundai took a step further and developed XCIENT hydrogen-powered trucks for the long haul. 

Honda has recently launched the 2025 Honda CR-V e: FCEV made in the US and with a plug-in EV charging capability. These companies indicate that the hydrogen FCEV space is continuously developing.

How do hydrogen cars work?

Hydrogen cars operate using a clean energy process that converts hydrogen into electricity. This conversion happens in the fuel cell stack, where hydrogen gas is processed without combustion. The resulting electrical energy is then used to power the vehicle’s electric motors.

The internal workings of a fuel cell are comparable to a battery. Hydrogen is introduced at the anode, where it meets a catalyst that splits it into electrons and protons. The electrons travel through a circuit to power the car, while the protons contribute to the electrical flow.

The only byproduct of this entire process is water emitted from the car’s tailpipe. This makes hydrogen cars environmentally friendly and offers a sustainable alternative to traditional vehicles.

What are the key properties of hydrogen FCEVs?

  1. Zero-emission vehicles: FCEVs emit only water vapor and warm air as byproducts.
  2. Longer driving range: Typically over 402 miles (647 km) on a full hydrogen tank.
  3. Fast refueling: FCEVs can be refueled in about 5 minutes, similar to conventional vehicles.
  4. Energy efficiency: FCEVs are more efficient than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. FCEVs exhibit higher efficiency compared to battery electric vehicles.
  5. Potential for renewable energy: Hydrogen can be produced using 100% renewable energy sources.
  6. Weight advantage: Fuel cell systems in long-range electric vehicles can be lighter than large battery packs. The Toyota Mirai’s 1.6 kW battery weighs 44 kg, the hydrogen tank weighs 87 kg, and the fuel cell weighs 52 kg. In contrast, the batteries used in Tesla’s vehicles weigh over 1000 lbs (> 400 kilograms).
  7. Cold weather performance: FCEVs can operate efficiently in freezing temperatures, with BMW’s iX5 Hydrogen tested at -20°C.

What are the major challenges of hydrogen vehicles?

Hydrogen vehicles are certainly promising, yet they face notable challenges. These include hurdles in infrastructure growth, production, storage, and market competition.

Infrastructure development

The lack of widespread hydrogen refueling infrastructure remains a major hurdle. As of 2023, there were only about 921 refueling stations globally, each costing around $2 million to build. Comparatively, building a network for hydrogen distribution is more costly and logistically demanding than maintaining traditional fuel infrastructures.

The complexities in hydrogen distribution compound the infrastructure challenges for hydrogen vehicles. Transporting hydrogen requires specialized pipelines resistant to embrittlement or costly cryogenic tanks for road transport. These logistical demands directly influence the complexity and expense of developing refueling infrastructure.

Production and storage 

Hydrogen production primarily uses steam methane reforming, which efficiently produces hydrogen but also releases substantial CO2. In contrast, green hydrogen production, which uses renewable energy sources, is expensive and constitutes less than 1% of global output. The higher costs associated with green hydrogen production stem from the technologies used in electrolysis. 

Hydrogen storage presents a set of challenges linked to its inherent properties. Its low volumetric energy density necessitates the use of high-pressure tanks (350-700 bar), and its small molecular size raises concerns for leakage. When hydrogen is leaked, its global warming potential is around 12 times that of CO2. This severe environmental impact makes the storage and handling of hydrogen even more challenging.

Competition from EVs

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles face strong competition from electric vehicles (EVs), which have a more established infrastructure. Charging stations for EVs are widespread, which enhances their accessibility for everyday users. This existing network significantly sways consumer preferences toward electric vehicles. 

The affordability of electric vehicles continues to improve due to technological advancements and larger production volumes. As a result, EVs are becoming increasingly economical, attracting more consumers. On the other hand, the limited availability of hydrogen refueling stations and the higher costs associated with hydrogen vehicles deter potential buyers. 

What makes Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell Hilux stand out?

Hydrogen powered Hilux prototype

Hydrogen-powered Hilux prototype (Source)

The Toyota Hilux prototype is powered by a state-of-the-art polymer electrolyte fuel cell consisting of 330 cells. The fuel cell stack delivers a substantial power output of 128 kW (174 DIN HP). The power output of the Toyota Hilux’s fuel cell stack is comparable to commercially available EVs: The Nissan Leaf (110 kW), Hyundai Kona Electric (160 kW), and Ford F-150 (131 kW). 

Magnet synchronous motor

The Hilux prototype features a permanent magnet synchronous motor. It delivers a power output of 182 DIN HP (134 kW) and a maximum torque of 300 Nm. These specifications ensure the vehicle matches and exceeds the performance standards of traditional combustion engine pickups.

Li-ion battery pack

The prototype includes a cutting-edge lithium-ion battery pack, which consists of 84 cells and has a capacity of 4.0 Ah. The Li-ion battery supports the fuel cell system and provides additional power. This contributes to efficient energy use and enhanced energy storage.

Structural features

The vehicle features unique structural adaptations to accommodate the hydrogen technology without compromising the vehicle’s functionality. The car incorporates three hydrogen tanks, each with a capacity of 2.6 kg.

What are the implications for the automotive industry?

From the company perspective, Toyota has a multi-path strategy that involves developing and deploying various powertrain technologies. A strategy that ensures that Toyota meets the needs of its users.

Toyota is also setting industry standards. It is advancing the technology and developing the infrastructure and ecosystem needed to support hydrogen fuel. This includes forming partnerships to build hydrogen refueling infrastructure. It also involves collaborating with other sectors to explore hydrogen’s potential beyond passenger vehicles.

Toyota aims to attract customers who are eager to reduce their carbon footprint. They offer technological features not yet seen in battery electric vehicles. For instance, the 2024 Toyota Mirai, a FCEV, has outstanding capabilities such as: 

  • Range: Offers up to 647 km on a single hydrogen tank.
  • Emissions: Emits only water vapor, contributing to environmental sustainability.
  • Safety Technologies: Features advanced safety technologies tailored for hydrogen-powered transport.
  • Refueling Time: Can be refueled in about 5 minutes, providing exceptional convenience.
  • Cold Weather Performance: Maintains performance reliability even in cold weather conditions.

These features set a benchmark for integrating greener technologies in traditional vehicle manufacturing without compromising performance.

Emerging market opportunities:

In the commercial vehicle market, FCEVs offer considerable value over battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in various models. This advantage is notable in sedans, off-road vehicles, SUVs, and high-performance vehicles.

In public transportation, fuel cell buses can use their larger size to store more hydrogen at lower pressures. Fuel cell buses are a viable and attractive option for urban transportation systems. They benefit from the dedicated infrastructure in both urban and rural settings.

What will the future generations of FCEVs look like?

The next generation of fuel-cell electric cars will feature better power densities, lower costs, and greater durability. These improvements will stem from advances in green hydrogen production. It will enhance the refueling infrastructure, hydrogen storage, and fuel cell and battery technologies.

One current drawback of passenger FCEVs is the bulky compressed hydrogen tanks, which occupy significant space. Future solutions include replacing these tanks with lightweight hydrogen metal or non-metal hydrides. Although this technology is still in its infancy, metal hydrides can absorb hydrogen like a sponge.

Upcoming FCEVs using metal or non-metal hydrides for hydrogen storage will not require cylindrical tanks. These hydrides can be molded into various shapes, providing better weight management and stability. The flexibility of storage options allows placement in various vehicle parts. This includes areas between the wheels, similar to BEV battery storage.

How can PreScouter help?

PreScouter can help organizations stay at the forefront of hydrogen technology advancements. We ensure they are well-positioned to capitalize on the emerging opportunities in this dynamic field. Here are some of the ways we can help:

  • Technology scouting and assessment: Identifying and evaluating emerging hydrogen technologies, materials, and processes that could enhance the efficiency and performance of fuel cells and hydrogen storage systems.
  • Market analysis and trends: Conduct comprehensive market research to understand the current and future trends in hydrogen technology. This will help stakeholders make informed strategic decisions.
  • Collaborative research and partnerships: Facilitating collaborations between companies, research institutions, and other stakeholders to accelerate the development and deployment of hydrogen technologies.
  • Regulatory and policy insights: Providing insights into the regulatory landscape and policy developments affecting hydrogen technology. This will help companies navigate compliance and leverage incentives.

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at solutions@prescouter.com

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