Nikola Motor has made plenty of headlines as it develops a hydrogen-electric truck, but it is not the only company working on such as Class 8 vehicle. In fact, there is another company that not only is building one, but is about to introduce its second-generation model to real-world operation in the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
Toyota just announced its new model, what it is calling Project Portal 2.0, or Beta, at an event last month. Andrew Lund, chief engineer for Project Portal, Tak Yokoo, senior executive engineer, Jose Gonzalez, principle technician powertrain, and Danny Gamboa, FCD Evaluation and one of the drivers of the vehicle, spoke to FreightWaves about the project, its performance to date, and the potential future of the project.
“We started with a proof of concept…can we take our Mirai fuel cell technology and scale it to commercialization [in a tractor-trailer],” explains Lund. “We can say the Alpha proof of concept has been successful.”
The first version of the truck, Alpha, entered port work last year hauling 40-foot containers to and from the port. According to Gonzalez, the vehicle contracts with Southern Counties Express working in the Almeida corridor. It averaged a little over 100 miles a day, with up to 200 miles some days, which would be close to an average drayage truck’s daily miles, he says.
“The route we were using is a typical drayage route you would use in the ports,” Gonzalez notes.
Alpha is a day cab built using a Kenworth T600 model. It has recorded nearly 10,000 miles of testing in and around the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Power by a 670-plus horsepower engine producing 1,325 ft.-lbs. of torque using two Mirai fuel cell stacks and a 12kWh battery, the vehicle has an 80,000-pound gross combined weight capacity. Beta will maintain those attributes, but a redesign of the hydrogen storage system gives it added range, potentially up to 500 miles versus Alpha’s 200-mile range.
For Gamboa, who has driven for J.B. Hunt (NASDAQ: JBHT) and then worked for American Eagle Express as safety manager, the vehicle’s smooth drive makes it unlike any other truck he has driven.
“I can do a 12-hour shift and not even feel like I’m tired,” he says. “Driving this vehicle is like driving a Supra. I don’t ever see going back to a diesel truck after this.”
The Alpha model has turned some heads in the ports, Gamboa says, and he spends time explaining the vehicle’s capabilities.
“When people see it, they are just blown away,” he relates. “The torque is incredible, it has more than enough power to handle 80,000 pounds."
“As soon as I stop for a break, or to check the tires, people say, ‘what is it’?” Gamboa says. “This is the first vehicle I’ve ever driven that I can hear the suspension when I drive down the road.”
Yokoo says that power drain in the vehicle is similar to a diesel-powered truck, and both Alpha and Beta include all standard power needs such as air conditioning, which Gamboa says runs constantly in California due to the no-idle policies at the ports.
“When you have to make electric power from a combustion engine, it is much less efficient,” Lund explains. “What we’ve learned from the electric vehicles like the Prius is [that converting energy to electric power is easier and therefore more efficient].”
The second-generation model, which will enter port duty this fall, is based on the updated Kenworth T680 model and features a 40-inch sleeper berth. The addition of the sleeper did not change the overall length of the vehicle thanks to the redesigned hydrogen storage units.
While Alpha proved the ability of Mirai’s fuel cell technology in a commercial setting, Beta is about advancing that and proving commercialization. As Yokoo explains, if Toyota can successfully leverage a single fuel cell design across multiple vehicle ranges, it lowers overall cost and provides more viability for hydrogen.
“We really want to understand that the fuel cell we’ve designed for a medium-sized vehicle … can be used for a large-scale truck,” he says.
Lund adds that Toyota is a big believer in a hydrogen fuel future and the Project Portal Class 8 truck testing is part of that path to the future. When asked why Toyota, which does not offer heavy-duty trucks in North America, chose a commercial truck for testing, Lund was not giving away any secrets, but says there is a long-term plan.
“It’s not just a splash, there is a plan,” Lund says. “We just can’t divulge it now.”