Market Insights

Toyota’s Hilux Hydrogen Fuel Cell Pickup

October 02, 2023 by Kevin Clemens

While Toyota has been slow to develop electric vehicles, the Japanese company has announced plans for a hydrogen-powered pickup truck.

Toyota is currently the largest carmaker in the world. The Japan-based giant has manufacturing facilities around the world—in the U.S., the company employs 30,000 workers primarily in Texas, Kentucky, and Indiana—and with its pioneering Prius hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle (launched in 1997), it has been a leader in fuel efficiency and environmental stewardship. More recently, however, Toyota has dropped the ball on the development of battery electric vehicles (EVs)—Toyota’s only EV sold in the U.S. is a small sport utility vehicle called the bZ4X—while others like Tesla and China-based BYD are selling every EV that they can build in markets around the world. 


Toyota reveals hydrogen fuel cell electric Hilux prototype.

Toyota reveals hydrogen fuel cell electric Hilux prototype. Image used courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation


So, it seems strange that Toyota in Europe has unveiled the prototype of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric Hilux pickup truck. The truck was revealed at Toyota Manufacturing UK’s vehicle plant in Derby, England, developed in a joint project with partners Ricardo, ETL (European Thermodynamics), D2H Advanced Technologies, and Thatcham Research and funded in part by the U.K. government.

The company claims that the project is a part of Toyota’s multi-path strategy to achieve carbon-free transportation by applying different powertrain solutions —hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric, battery electric, and fuel cell electric— to suit different types of users and their needs in many parts of the world. 


Problems and Limitations of Hydrogen Fuel 

The use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel might be one of the most overhyped dreams ever presented to a hopeful public. More than 90 percent of the commercially available hydrogen is made by steam reforming natural gas or through coal gasification. Both processes produce large amounts of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere. Renewable energy can be used through electrolysis to produce green hydrogen, a practice that is in its earliest stages. Beyond making hydrogen, using it to power land vehicles has some other difficult-to-solve problems. 

The most effective method for utilizing hydrogen in transportation involves employing fuel cells. These fuel cells function by merging hydrogen and oxygen with the assistance of a catalyst, thereby generating electricity capable of powering an electric traction motor for propelling the vehicle. 

Recent advancements in proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology involve the use of a permeable polymer sheet that facilitates the passage of hydrogen protons, which have been separated from their electrons at the anode electrode, through the membrane to reach the cathode electrode. It is important to note that only protons can traverse the membrane, while electrons, gaseous hydrogen, or oxygen cannot. 


Proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology.

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


To provide sufficient energy for the vehicle, multiple PEM cells must be interconnected to form a stack. Furthermore, the sole byproduct of the fuel cell, in addition to a slight amount of heat, is water vapor. To prevent fouling of the PEM stack, the input hydrogen must have a purity exceeding 99 percent.

However, there are three significant limitations associated with the use of hydrogen fuel cells in everyday transportation. First, the safe storage of hydrogen is a challenging and unattractive task, requiring either cryogenic conditions or extremely high-pressure tanks. Secondly, the cost of fuel cells remains prohibitively high for ordinary vehicles, although ongoing development efforts have contributed to cost reduction. Nevertheless, the use of platinum as a catalyst to expedite the hydrogen-oxygen reaction continues to inflate the overall expense.

The most formidable challenge in deploying hydrogen fuel cells for land transportation pertains to their efficiency. At best, a PEM stack achieves around 50 percent efficiency, which means that half of the energy contained in the onboard hydrogen is squandered. Considering that the electrolysis process for producing green hydrogen operates at an efficiency of 67 percent, the combined efficiency is insufficient. 

In light of this, a more practical approach is to harness the electricity generated from renewable energy sources and store it in batteries that can subsequently charge battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs), which boast efficiencies exceeding 90 percent. This renders hydrogen utilization less advantageous in comparison.


How the Hilux Uses Hydrogen

The powertrain of the hydrogen-powered Toyota Hilux uses parts and pieces from the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric sedan. The Mirai was introduced in 2014 and is considered to be the first fuel cell vehicle to be mass-produced. In the Hilux prototype, hydrogen is stored in three high-pressure fuel tanks, which gives the vehicle an expected driving range of more than 600 kilometers (about 375 miles). A hybrid battery, which is located in the rear load deck, stores electricity produced by the on-board fuel cell.  


The hydrogen-powered Toyota Hilux under construction in the U.K.

The hydrogen-powered Toyota Hilux under construction in the U.K. Image used courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation


The first vehicle prototype construction began in early June of this year and took just three weeks to build. The plan is to build ten additional vehicles by the end of the year to provide the necessary vehicles for safety, dynamic performance, functionality, and durability testing to meet the various standards required of a production model.


Will Toyota Move Forward With EVs?

In January of this year, Akio Toyoda stepped down as chief executive of the company—a move that was seen as Toyota finally recognizing that new leadership was needed to move the company into electrification. It takes time to turn a ship as large as this, and while projects like the hydrogen-powered Hilux draw attention to the company's technological prowess, it provides an impression that Toyota still isn’t all-in and serious about finally building battery electric vehicles that will compete on a world stage.