Los Angeles has had a fleet of new vehicles around its shipping docks.

In the summer of 2020, The Port of Los Angeles received 10 heavy-duty trucks, each having one defining component in common: a hydrogen fuel cell.

The 10-truck effort for hydrogen power was supported by a California government grant known as ZANZEFF  – or Zero- and Near Zero-Emission Freight Facilities. Through ZANZEFF, and collaboration with the energy giant Shell; the Bellevue, WA-based truckmaker PACCAR; and The Port of Los Angeles, the trucks were built using Toyota’s heavy-duty truck kit.

The kit, designed for Class 8 vehicles, includes two integrated fuel cell modules (providing 160 kW of power), a hydrogen storage facility at the back of the truck (containing 60 kg of fuel), an “eDrivetrain” of two motors and transmission, and a high-voltage battery assembly below the cab.

And the trucks are being put to real work, even beyond the ports, according to Chris Rovik, Executive Program Manager at Toyota Motor North America, who spoke in a live presentation on TechBriefs.com last week. Actual fleet customers, including logistics providers like UPS, are driving the heavy-duty hydrogen-powered vehicles on their regional routes.

“These are their routes, their cargo, their drivers, and they’re operated with all the mission-critical requirements that they expect in their diesel-powered trucks,” said Rovik.

The trucks were tested against high temperatures and high altitudes, ranging from California’s 40-mile “Grapevine” stretch to Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Since implementation of the pilot program, the hydrogen fuel cell trucks have logged over 50,000 miles.

Diesel-powered vehicles have traditionally been significant contributors to harmful black carbon emissions. Employing hydrogen fuel cell technology allows heavy-duty trucks to operate in way where their only emission is clean, pure water – an important idea as vehicle manufacturers look for greener designs.

“It’s truly a great sight to witness a zero-emission truck,” said Rovik.

But internal combustion engines – and the gas stations supporting them – are still fixed aspects of today’s energy infrastructure. Will hydrogen fuel cells increase beyond pilot programs, and surpass diesel power options?

An attendee of the Tech Briefs-led presentation had a question for Rovik.

Given the large infrastructure already in existence for internal combustion engine refueling and the unique differences in handling and supplying hydrogen as compared to diesel, what can we realistically expect in the short term for availability? Will there be a focus on more popular trucking routes, or will refueling be required at specialty type facilities?

Chris Rovik.

Read Chris Rovik’s edited response below.

Chris Rovik: As a challenge for any new technology, whether it be battery electric charging or hydrogen, there’s a constant battle between infrastructure and the trucks.

The ZANZEFF grant included several commercial hydrogen fueling stations for heavy duty trucks. Those are up and in operation today. The trucks that are being used in the pilot operation are being used in those stations. We really see it as kind of a “hub and spoke” type operation in the infancy.

This [pilot program] mainly started as a port drayage exercise. In our initial trucks, we assumed that we were only going to be working in the ports to solve that challenge. Since we started working on this, the demand has really grown. There are heavy-duty stations planned in northern California. We’ve moved to the regional route operations. It’s really a balancing act between where the trucks are needed and where the refill stations can be built. And the idea is to start with heavy-duty trucks – we can use those to find routes to build out that infrastructure, and that infrastructure can help on the light duty side as well. It really depends on the use case.

Watch Rovik’s presentation on demand: Commercial-Vehicle Propulsion: Hydrogen’s Potential to Fuel a Revolution.