Toyota boosting efforts to develop fuel cell buses

Toyota Motor is accelerating its efforts to develop buses and commercial trucks that run on fuel cells, in a push for popularizing the environment-friendly technology despite a global shift toward electricity.

Toyota plans to launch such carbon dioxide-free — at least on the road — vehicles mainly in Tokyo next year.

Fuel cell vehicles are still better placed than electric vehicles in terms of charging time and longer driving range.

At the Tokyo Motor Show in October, Toyota showcased its Sora fuel cell concept bus. The bus uses the Toyota Fuel Cell System, originally developed for the Toyota Mirai fuel cell sedan, to improve its eco-friendliness.

At the event, Executive Vice President Didier Leroy stressed that the Sora represents Toyota’s continuing desire to realize a “hydrogen society.”

Toyota plans to develop a bus based on the Sora and supply over 100 units in central Tokyo in time for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen and oxygen to power themselves. Oxygen and hydrogen, which is stored in a high-pressure tank, are sent to the fuel cell stack, where the two gases are reacted together to generate electricity to power the motor. The only byproduct is water, which is discharged from the vehicle.

The Sora has two fuel cell stacks, two motors and 10 hydrogen tanks so as to increase output. Each tank contains up to 600 milliliters of hydrogen, about five times the amount on the Mirai. The bus has an external power supply system with an output capacity of 9kW that can generate 235 kilowatt-hours of electricity so that it can be used in emergencies, such as after natural disasters.

The bus also has improved safety features. It is the first bus in Japan to be equipped with an acceleration control system, which prevents sudden acceleration. The ride is made more comfortable for passengers, especially those standing, by eliminating jerky movements caused by shifting gears. Eight high-definition cameras help prevent accidents.

Fuel cell vehicles need less time to charge up with fuel than electric vehicles. They also have longer driving range than their electric cousins. Once the necessary infrastructure, such as hydrogen stations, becomes widely available, fuel cell technology will have a greater advantage for use in buses and commercial trucks that travel on fixed routes. They are also less than internal combustion engine-powered vehicles and more powerful than electrics. “We can make the most of fuel cell vehicles’ advantages,” Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said.

Toyota is working on several fuel cell vehicle projects. It plans to develop a special fuel cell bus jointly with Seven-Eleven Japan and start using it to carry products to the convenience store chain’s outlets as early as 2019. In the U.S. state of California, Toyota is testing a large, 36-ton commercial fuel cell truck.

Toyota has considered fuel cell vehicles as the promising next-generation eco-friendly transport. But as automakers around the world increasingly shift their attention to electric vehicles, Toyota can no longer turn a blind eye to the segment. In September, Toyota set up a new company to develop the basic technology underlying electric vehicles jointly with Mazda Motor, a capital partner, and Denso, an affiliated auto component maker.

Some think the shift to electric is a blow to fuel cell vehicles. But Toyota’s efforts to develop electric vehicles do not mean its fuel cell vehicle development will retreat, Leroy said.

Toyota has announced plans to halt production of models powered solely by internal-combustion engines by around 2025. The company believes fuel cell vehicles will see certain needs in Japan in part because of the government’s aim to realize a “hydrogen society.”

To achieve that goal, Toyota needs to establish relevant infrastructure. And that requires cooperation with other automakers and local administrative bodies. In Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, where it is headquartered, Toyota is planning a project to build a supply network for industry of hydrogen from renewable energy sources.

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