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Project Portal opens the door to the hydrogen economy

Project Portal

A staunch proponent of a hydrogen society, Craig Scott has spent eighteen years working in the hydrogen field at Toyota Motor North America. Over the last four years, he has helped to create and develop the company’s hydrogen fuel cell system designed for heavy-duty trucks, known as Project Portal, through his product planning and corporate strategy role as Director of Advanced Technologies. After developing a successful proof-of-concept called Alpha, Project Portal this year began testing Beta, the second iteration of its hydrogen truck. As the project demonstrates a zero-emission solution for transporting goods throughout the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, it is also illustrating the crucial synergy between the heavy-duty and light-duty vehicle markets that will open the door to an affordable hydrogen economy for everyone.

Craig Scott Director of Advanced Technologies at Toyota Motor

Project Portal has now produced the second iteration of its hydrogen-powered truck, known as Beta. What improvements does the new model offer?

Primary improvements from Alpha are that we extended the range of the vehicle to over 300 miles and made some packaging improvements. We also decided to move from a day cab to a sleeper cab, in order to align better with the demands of today’s market.

What are the first results?

Today we are doing what we call shakedown for Beta, which focuses on fine-tuning the vehicle. Continuous improvement is a crucial aspect of this project: we want to produce a better model at every stage.

“Our drivers say it’s a relaxing experience compared to driving a normal diesel truck, just like driving a car down the road.”

In terms of feasibility, the truck is doing exactly what it is supposed to do, which is to keep pace with the long-standing benchmark provided by diesel trucks operating in and out of the port for half a century. We want our hydrogen truck to meet and even exceed the performance of a standard diesel truck. One way it does that is by generating zero emissions from tank-to-wheel, because we are not combusting any fuel.

How do drivers like the hydrogen trucks developed for Project Portal?

Similar to its light-duty counterpart, the Mirai, the Alpha truck received a very warm welcome from drivers, even though it is just a prototype. It offers a substantially enhanced driving experience over a typical Class 8 truck, primarily due to substantially reduced vibration and handling. Since there is no sixteen-gear transmission, drivers no longer feel any grinding while trying to find the right gear and maximize torque. By delivering power and linear torque straight to the wheels, it gives the vehicle both a very powerful feeling and also a very smooth ride. Our drivers say it’s a relaxing experience compared to driving a normal diesel truck, just like driving a car down the road.

We clearly see the enhanced acceleration in the YouTube video released by The Wheel Network. How does the performance of hydrogen trucks compare to standard diesel trucks?

We designed the truck to mirror the specifications of a standard diesel truck very closely, notably by offering the same horsepower and torque. The main difference lies in how that torque is delivered and the way the driver experiences the truck’s horsepower: fewer noise and vibrations. You can see in the video how smooth and quick the acceleration is, because drivers are not struggling to find gears to deliver the torque.

Can you walk us through a typical day in the life of a Project Portal truck?

The truck usually starts off the morning with a quick charge (15 to 20min) — although it offers enough range that we do not have to charge up every day — before picking up cargo either at our operations in the port or our facilities in Long Beach and delivering to our locations in or around Los Angeles, or as far as Ontario, California, about sixty miles outside of Los Angeles. As is standard for this type of truck, it usually transports two or three loads a day, consisting mainly in vehicle parts coming from Japan. In the future, we may use it to transport vehicles.

How do battery electric and hydrogen stack up in the heavy vehicle market?

It’s hard to see how a battery electric truck would be practical in this market, mainly for two reasons. Batteries tack on about 10,000 pounds of extra weight, which cuts down on a truck’s ability to haul a full load and leads to a significantly lower utilization rate. That is a huge disadvantage in a business where total cost of ownership and the ability to move goods at the lowest cost per pound are the name of the game.

“When we finally built the vehicle, pushed the start button and saw the truck move those first few feet forward inside the garage, it filled us with so much pride and excitement.”

Charging is also a major issue: it’s unclear how a company could charge such a massive battery fast enough to keep the truck on the road. Trucking companies are used to quick turnarounds, meaning they fill up the truck in fifteen minutes and get back on the road, which would be impossible with battery electric. Previous demonstrations have already shown this to be true.

Project Portal: hydrogen fuel cell trucks powered by Toyota

What about hydrogen production for Project Portal?

We’re building a new facility in Long Beach that will produce just over one ton of 100% renewable hydrogen every day for our operations. It will generate hydrogen using renewable natural gas, which comes from a mix of feedstock including dairy, wastewater treatment, landfill gas and green waste.

Toyota expects to open the Tri-Gen hydrogen fueling facility in 2020. What is the state of hydrogen infrastructure today, and how do you see it developing in the years ahead?

This will be the first station dedicated to the heavy truck market in California. We earned a first award of $8 millions to build this station. And more recently, our project was awarded $82 million ($41 millions from Toyota and $41 millions from the California Air Resources Board) to build ten more trucks and two additional heavy-duty stations, one in Long Beach and one in Ontario, California. We still have a lot to learn, but we are definitely on the upswing of developing hydrogen infrastructure.

“Synergy between heavy-duty and light-duty is a crucial stepping stone to the hydrogen economy.”

We spent two years studying the market before developing the truck for Project Portal, and we saw that Los Angeles was just the tip of the iceberg. Other major ports like Oakland and New York stand to gain much from hydrogen trucks. Today, we get daily requests about the truck from other ports in the country, as well as Australia, Canada, Europe and the Middle East, all of which has confirmed our estimates of the market’s potential.

What do you see as the next big steps in scaling up hydrogen in the heavy-duty market?

Similar to light-duty, it’s a combination of volume — developing more trucks — and also developing more hydrogen stations to fill up those trucks. The good news is that it’s slightly less complicated than developing hydrogen infrastructure for light-duty vehicles, because a handful of large stations can support a vast fleet of hydrogen trucks. In terms of port operations, trucks usually have a home that they return to every night, which makes it much easier to develop infrastructure.

What role does the heavy-duty market play in the broader development of hydrogen vehicles?

There is a lot of excitement behind hydrogen in the heavy-duty market because it offers a unique opportunity to test the technology: heavy-duty vehicles use about 75 times more hydrogen than light-duty vehicles on a daily basis. For us, that opens up the door to making and delivering hydrogen at scale in order to drive down the price of hydrogen for everyone.

“Hydrogen will enter into every link in the supply chain”

At the same time, light-duty vehicles provide the manufacturing scale necessary to lower the cost of fuel cell technology for all vehicles. Synergy between heavy-duty and light-duty is a crucial stepping stone to the hydrogen economy.

Does hydrogen also have a role to play in manufacturing?

Absolutely! We’ve committed to using hydrogen to power the manufacturing line to build our next-generation fuel cell vehicles, thus eliminating carbon emissions. Hydrogen will enter into every link in the supply chain, from operating forklifts, running the manufacturing line, powering the building and, ultimately, powering the building where the steel is made for cars.

Toyota’s Long Beach Port Facility is the company’s first location in North America to be powered 100% by renewables. Have any of the company’s other locations followed suit?

For now, we are the only facility in the United States that has achieved this goal, but it is part of a major global effort underway at Toyota to remove 90% of carbon from our processes by 2050. A facility in South America and one in Japan have started working in this direction, and others will soon follow.



How has Toyota’s global reach impacted Project Portal?

In terms of cooperation, we have relied heavily on shared development resources between Japan and the United States in developing our hydrogen trucks.. While the majority of the engineering and software work was done in the United States, Toyota has also partnered with 7-Eleven in Japan to test hydrogen fuel cell refrigerated delivery trucks. Cross-communication has played a key role in the life of this project.

What partnerships or collaborations have you formed to develop Project Portal?

Though it grew out of a request from the state of California to help reduce carbon emissions, we largely developed the Alpha truck on our own. For Beta, we involved more industrial partners, including Air Liquide, which developed and operated a fueling station exclusively for Project Portal. Moving forward, our trucks will be developed together with our partners, with funding from the state of California.

How will these partnerships influence the future development of hydrogen vehicles?

For its Project Portal Toyota wants to build in a hydrogen-based society

As in the light duty market, funding should focus on the customer. That means our job as auto OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) is to find ways to sell products that are affordable and approachable to customers. The government’s role is to provide incentives for end users, drivers and small fleet operators to transition from the incumbent technology towards a cleaner fuel.

What was the most exciting moment for you in the development of Project Portal?

For most of the project, we operated largely under the cloak of darkness, as a tiny team of five people working out of a garage. We were so excited about the project’s potential that we often worked round the clock. When we finally built the vehicle, pushed the start button and saw the truck move those first few feet forward inside the garage, it filled us with so much pride and excitement in knowing that the hydrogen economy is possible and within reach.