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In a smoke-choked port, riding along in Toyota’s hydrogen-powered semi

Toyota Hydrogen Trucks
Tim Esterdahl/Digital Trends

Semi trucks are filthy, loud, and slow. But without them, you’d have no bread in your grocery store, no beer in your fridge, and no Amazon packages on your doorstep. No wonder Americans were fascinated when Elon Musk promised to turn the entire industry upside down with clean, quiet, absurdly fast electric semis built by Tesla.

Keyword: promised. Like the Model 3 before it, Tesla’s semi seems to be hitting road bumps, on the way to becoming real, and skeptics now wonder if will ever get here.

Fortunately for us, we don’t need to wait for Musk: Toyota has an electric semi quietly hauling freight around Southern California. Right now. It moves 80,000 pounds, runs on a hydrogen fuel cell, and puffs out pure water vapor in place of black diesel clouds. It’s called Project Portal.

Who needs Tesla? Digital Trends rode shotgun on the roads around the Los Angeles-Long Beach Port Complex area to see if hydrogen is up to the task of heavy hauling.

Buckle up

Toyota doesn’t make semis. So rather than reinventing the wheel – or all 10 of them – Toyota engineers modified a Kenworth, a vanilla-looking semi you’d blow right past on the interstate without batting an eye. But climb inside this one and it becomes clear you’re not dealing with an ordinary diesel anymore. For starters, there’s the miniature shifter. Borrowed from Toyota’s petite hydrogen-powered Mirai, it looks like a pencil compared to the 2×4-like shifter in an ordinary semi. And that’s just the beginning.

Juice here comes from the fuel-cell stack, which combines hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity, emitting only water.

The retrofit had Toyota engineers pulling out the diesel engine, tearing out most of the interior and dash, and building a custom storage container for four high-pressure hydrogen tanks and two 6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion batteries – that’s smaller than you would even find in a Nissan Leaf. Unlike Tesla’s battery-powered semi, juice here comes from the fuel-cell stack, which combines hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity, emitting only water. An electric motor cranking out 670 HP and 1,325 lb-feet of torque holds its own beside the 600 HP Cummins diesel you might find in an ordinary T660.

This electric motor is connected directly to the driveshaft and turns the massive axles. Pretty simple powertrain conversion. That is after Toyota made its way through a seemingly unending mass of wires connecting the electric motor, battery, hydrogen fuel cell and stacks together. These wires are massive in diameter.

The sound of the truck firing up, or lack of it, immediately gets your attention. “One of the things I noticed when I first started driving on the streets is how I can hear the suspension,” said Danny Gamboa, one of the professional drivers Toyota contracted to help test the rig. “In a typical diesel semi, you can’t hear any of that stuff. You basically blast the stereo so all you can hear is the revving of the engine.”

Toyota Hydrogen Trucks
Tim Esterdahl/Digital Trends

Releasing the air brakes, a familiar hiss fills the air and the semi eases forward. Still quiet. Bizarrely quiet. Making a right turn onto a busy street, Gamboa puts the accelerator down and the unexpected happens.

The truck flings us into the backs of our seats. While Toyota doesn’t publish an official 0-to-60 time (semi trucks never really do, and drivers don’t want fast take offs since it causes freight to shift), the sensation of tells us we are really moving. There is no jerking like diesel semi trucks do when the driver rows through the many gears: You push on the accelerator and the electric powertrain smoothly rushes you forward up to the speed requested.

Gamboa puts the accelerator down and the unexpected happens.

Gamboa says this ease of use means less driver fatigue, and he would know. He has been driving it for months now, and puts in long 10- to 12-hour days moving Toyota freight around the docks.

As we ride along for the day, we roll down some of the worst roads in the area, deeply rutted and pockmarked with pot holes. Elbow-to-elbow with other semis on a tight four-lane row, we watch them bounce and rattle as their suspensions try – and fail – to smooth out the road. While we still feel bumps, we’re gliding on a cloud in comparison. The conversion moved the weight in the semi around creating a better center of gravity leading to a much smoother ride.

The cloud hanging over diesel

While Toyota’s truck is quieter, easier to operate, and more comfortable than a conventional truck, it’s the green credibility that is most sorely needed here in the combined port complex of Los Angeles and Long Beach. With 68 miles of waterfront and 10,000 acres of land, it carries the dual distinction of being one of the biggest, busiest ports in the world, as well as having the worst air quality in Southern California.

Every day, large ships dock to offload thousands of metal containers through one of the hundreds of tall cranes dominating the skyline. A fleet of diesel-powered semi trucks, called drayage trucks, then ferry the containers to a nearby distribution center. When the port is operating, it is a continual flurry of activity – and pollution.

Throughout the day, we have our windows down and while the ocean is often within sight, there are no whiffs of the ocean breeze. Instead, diesel exhaust fumes fill our lungs. At one point, we drive by a local elementary school, with an outdoor playground sandwiched between a highway, another busy road, and a shipping company. The reality is, these kids have no fresh air to breathe.

When the port is operating, it is a continual flurry of activity – and pollution.

While the entire operation contributes, the drayage trucks are a large source of the problem. Mandates to clean up air quality mean alternative fuels must be the future if the port is to continue growing, and the ports are offering seed money to companies to find a workable solution.

Maybe it’s no surprise then, that we get plenty of thumbs up and curious glances driving around. The other semi-truck drivers understand the need to cut down on pollution and any zero-emission vehicle, like Project Portal, is met with more approval than skepticism. The drivers and their families are breathing the same air.

Fill ‘er up

Battery-powered EVs could help clean up air quality too, but in the always-on environment of a port, parking trucks to recharge won’t fly. That’s where hydrogen shines. While an EV might need to sit for hours charging, a hydrogen vehicle can fill up in minutes.

Outside of Toyota’s port complex, where pristine cars await transport to dealers, sits a hydrogen fueling station. The station is massive soaring 20 feet or better into the air and is nearly the same in width. Inside the station are large compressors to convert the nearby liquid hydrogen into a gas, as well as cooling the gas to -40 degrees Celsius, which expedites fueling. Standing next to the station is a lonely stand with a single hose for connecting the station to the semi. The small size of the hose is a complete contrast to the massive size of the fueling station. It is a weird-looking station and easy to miss unless you look for it.

Toyota Hydrogen Trucks
Tim Esterdahl/Digital Trends

Filling up is no more complex than with diesel: Take the quick-connect nozzle and latch it to the hydrogen tank at the bottom of the sleeper cab, then wait. It takes about 25 minutes to top the fuel cells up with enough hydrogen for 200 miles of range. That’s longer than the 30 minutes or so a diesel semi takes to fill up its 300 gallons, but Toyota predicts the hydrogen fueling time will continue to improve, as engineers develop new techniques to keep the hydrogen fuel at a lower temperature.

They’ve already made strides. When Toyota’s first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Highlander FCHV, came out in 2002, it required 15 minutes for 300 miles of range. Now, the Toyota Mirai only takes 3 minutes for 300 miles of range.

Fool cells

Hydrogen fuel cells aren’t proverbial silver bullet for our air-quality problems. Skeptics still deride them as “fool cells” and point to a number of shortcomings – some of which Toyota is still grappling with.

In a pure hydrogen fuel cell stacks there is always an accepted leak level, since it is impossible to completely seal the cells.

First, hydrogen does leak out of the fuel cells. In a pure hydrogen fuel cell stacks there is always an accepted leak level, since it is impossible to completely seal the cells. Toyota has been working to reduce the amount of hydrogen leaking out of the fuel cells, but for now, they lose a little fuel every day.

Second, the infrastructure for mass adoption of fuel cells doesn’t exist yet. NASA may have used them to power the Apollo 11 spacecraft in 1969, and Toyota has been working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles since at least 1998, but you still can’t fuel up just anywhere. There are just 39 of public hydrogen stations in the U.S.That’s less of a problem in the mini metropolis of the LA-Long Beach port, where Toyota is currently working on building the largest hydrogen fuel station in the world. When completed next year, it will be able to handle 4,000 semi trucks every day. “The fueling station will have six nozzles and provide more than a ton of hydrogen per day,” said Craig Scott, Senior Manager, Advanced Business Strategy, Toyota Motor North America. “It will be three times larger than any other light-duty station in the world.”

Toyota Hydrogen Trucks
Tim Esterdahl/Digital Trends

Building the infrastructure can happen quickly if the need grows rapidly. For example, fueling stations can install the same setup Toyota uses and bring the hydrogen to them on a flat-bed trailer. Also, companies can tap into one of the many natural gas pipelines running throughout the country to extract hydrogen from the gas. Hydrogen can also be created from solar power, hydropower, and methane gas found in every dump, as well as from animal waste. Yes, the stinky kind of animal waste.

Chicken or the egg

For hydrogen infrastructure to grow, somebody needs to be buying it; but nobody wants to drive a hydrogen vehicle with nowhere to fill it. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario that Toyota hopes its Project Portal trucks can smash through. Unlike small passenger cars, which create limited demand, commercial semi trucks demand a substantial amount of fuel – enough that Toyota hopes it they can drive a substantial increase in infrastructure.

The company is counting more than green karma to tip the scales. The Project Portal semi promises fleet owners reduced maintenance costs, a consistent fuel price (hydrogen fluctuates less than diesel), a quieter, more comfortable ride reducing driver fatigue, and likely a longer lifecycle for the powertrain. This last point remains to be seen given the young age of the technology, but a diesel engine needs multiple rebuilds over its life.

Once commercial drives demand, consumers will get better access to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Hydrogen doesn’t need to “win” over battery only semis. Ultimately, zero-emission semis will probably be powered by both technologies. Battery only may make more sense for limited short-haul runs, and hydrogen fuel cell trucks may be used for longer runs, and in places where shorter fueling times are important, like in ports.

While it will take time for commercial operations to switch to alternative-fuel semis like Project Portal, once they do, the infrastructure, development and other costs should drop quickly. This is the real exciting part of the Toyota semi for consumers: Once commercial drives demand, consumers will get better access to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. What if you could get the easy fill-ups of gasoline, but with water vapor for emissions and less maintenance? Hydrogen advocates believe it would be enough to kickstart the industry.

“After driving it for a few months,” Gamboa said, “I only wish we had more of these semis on the road.”

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Tim Esterdahl
Tim Esterdahl is an award-winning, freelance automotive journalist who lives in Western Nebraska. He has published work in…
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