It’s not very often Toyota decides to choose Australia to globally reveal a new powertrain technology.
The Japanese carmaker has been working on hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engine (ICE) technology since 2017 through motorsport, but it’s now branching out and exploring the technology’s viability in the demanding commercial sector.
Toyota claims hydrogen-fuelled ICE technology is a low-investment and low-cost way to introduce hydrogen as it’s building on existing internal-combustion engine technology. It’s also claimed to “dramatically reduce” CO2 tailpipe emissions and have a similar refuelling time as traditional petrol- or diesel-fuelled vehicles.
The company says hydrogen-fuelled ICE technology has a combustion efficiency that’s higher than a petrol engine and much closer to a diesel-powered engine. As such, it’s claimed to be best suited for high loading and high towing use cases.
For now, the only catch is hydrogen refuelling infrastructure in Australia is extremely limited. In Victoria there’s currently just one refuelling station which is owned and operated by Toyota in Altona.
The Japanese carmaker did however, recently sign a memorandum of understanding with Hyundai, Ampol and Pacific Energy to develop more hydrogen refuelling infrastructure in Australia.
Will this kind of powertrain technology find its feet in Australia? Read along to find out.
Walking up to the Toyota Hydrogen HiAce prototype, there’s no immediate way to distinguish between this and the regular HiAce Commuter van apart from the loud livery and blue accents.
If you look a little bit closer however, there’s a H2 sticker on the fuel filler cap which signifies this prototype needs to be fuelled with hydrogen, and there’s also a subtle H2 badge on the tailgate.
Hopping into the Hydrogen HiAce prototype is identical to the regular HiAce. It’s fair way to climb and I’m thankful there’s a step to make this easier.
Once you’re sat in the driver’s seat there’s only one obvious difference from regular HiAce van to this hydrogen-fuelled prototype, which is the strange-looking monitor on top of the dashboard.
This dashboard-mounted monitor is absolutely critical as it displays information regarding the pressure and temperature of the hydrogen tanks, as well as how much hydrogen is left.
Given this HiAce is an early prototype and by no means a series-production vehicle, there are also a few things that haven’t been properly ported over. One of these is the fuel gauge always says it has no fuel despite the tanks having hydrogen in them.
It’s obvious the interior of the Hydrogen HiAce prototype is just a test bed for this burgeoning powertrain technology and there’s still a fair way to go before it’s commercialised.
Looking elsewhere around the cabin you’d be hard-pressed to find anything different from the regular HiAce Commuter.
The Hydrogen HiAce prototype retains all 12 seats of the regular Commuter body style, as well as the completely flat floor in the rear passenger compartment.
Just like up the front, there’s only small difference between this hydrogen-fuelled prototype and the regular HiAce Commuter van.
Right in the back corner of the Hydrogen HiAce prototype is a cage which contains computing hardware that records a wide range of telematics on the vehicle and broadcasts it back to Japan in real-time.
Toyota chose the HiAce as the pilot vehicle to test this new hydrogen-fuelled powertrain technology because it offers the opportunity to fit the internal combustion engine up front, and the three hydrogen tanks under the floor and between the chassis rails.
Unlike the regular Toyota HiAce sold in Australia, which is now only powered by a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel, this hydrogen prototype is powered by a 3.4-litre twin-turbo V6 engine modified to run on compressed hydrogen gas instead of petrol.
This engine is currently used with petrol in the Lexus LX 600 in Australia, as well as the Toyota LandCruiser 300 Series in other markets. Toyota claims one of the few modifications made to the engine are the injectors, which allow it to run on compressed hydrogen gas.
The hydrogen-fuelled V6 engine in the HiAce prototype produces 120kW of power and 354Nm of torque. This is 185kW and 296Nm less than its petrol-fuelled counterpart. Drive is sent to the rear wheels only through a 10-speed automatic transmission.
The internal combustion engine is fed by three hydrogen fuel tanks similar to the ones used in the current Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV). The Mirai has a hydrogen capacity of 5.6kg.
Toyota claims the Hydrogen HiAce prototype has a range of around 200km. For context, the Mirai has an NEDC claimed range of 650km.
This theoretically means the Hydrogen HiAce prototype consumes three times the amount of hydrogen the Mirai does when driving.
Few other technical details are known about the Hydrogen HiAce prototype at this stage, though it does have a 1500kg towing capacity and “minimal impact” on payload and internal space.
Toyota claims it’s already working on increasing the size of the hydrogen storage tanks and improving combustion, as well as exploring the possibility of adding hybrid technology.
It’s worth noting there’s already a petrol-electric hybrid version of the 3.4-litre twin-turbo V6 engine in the Tundra pickup and Sequoia SUV. This engine would be perfect if Toyota is already looking to hybridise for its hydrogen-fuelled ICE technology.
The Toyota Hydrogen HiAce prototype has a quirky startup sequence due to the fact it’s a prototype vehicle.
When starting up the hydrogen-fuelled van you use the regular key but you need to stop one click before the car turns car over as the car’s systems need to assess whether it’s okay and ready to go.
Once the car is ready, the dashboard-mounted monitor displays a cute message saying ‘You Can Drive!’. Turning over the engine in this prototype I was fully expecting to feel and hear the clatter and grumble of the regular HiAce’s 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine.
What I got instead was the silky smooth startup of the twin-turbo V6 petrol engine that has been modified to use hydrogen. It has a crisp idle sound that’s identical to its petrol-fuelled counterpart.
In terms of actually driving of the Hydrogen HiAce prototype, I only did a few laps of a test track at the Toyota Australia Autodrome in Altona, Victoria.
The course itself is a short smoothly paved circuit with varying speed limits, and the prototype van was completely unladen apart from having three passengers onboard.
Setting off in the Hydrogen HiAce prototype, it’s abundantly clear this vehicle is still a van. It feels huge behind the wheel, though in reality it’s not any larger than the regular super long-wheelbase diesel-powered HiAce Commuter.
I immediately picked up on incredibly light steering when driving. This made turning and changing direction in the hydrogen-fuelled HiAce really easy. The Hydrogen HiAce prototype actually has an electric power-assisted steering (EPAS) system instead of the regular HiAce’s hydraulic power steering system.
The reason for this is the prototype’s 3.4-litre twin-turbo V6 can’t be mated with a hydraulic power steering system. What the engineers behind the prototype did instead was alter the EPAS system from a LandCruiser 300 and made it fit in the HiAce body using custom parts.
Despite gaining an EPAS system, this hydrogen-fuelled HiAce prototype doesn’t adopt any active lane-keep assist functionalities that steers you back into a lane if you drift over a line marking.
Hydraulic power steering-equipped vehicles, like the regular HiAce, don’t have the capability to have lane-keep assist and only sometimes have lane departure warning which just beeps when you go over a marked line on the road.
It’s worth flagging the Hydrogen HiAce prototype is by no means a speed demon. Its hydrogen-fuelled 3.4-litre twin-turbo V6 engine is extremely docile in this application with 120kW and 354Nm.
Cruising at low speeds is when the Hydrogen HiAce prototype feels most at ease. Even then the van doesn’t feel like it has that much more to give and instead prefers to be driven conservatively. Speed does dial up at a slower-than-expected pace, but you’ll get to where you need to go – eventually.
Punching the Hydrogen HiAce prototype a little harder doesn’t really inspire confidence. When you do this you’re met an absolute wealth of turbo lag.
Toyota is well aware of this turbo lag and that’s why it’s currently assessing whether hybrid technology could help boost low-end torque – I’m sure recalibrating the twin-turbos would also assist. Once you eventually get out of the turbo lag hole, there isn’t a heap to phone home about. The engine just revs and feels like it’s begging you to stop.
The hydrogen-fuelled version of this 3.4-litre twin-turbo V6 has a redline of 4400rpm, compared to the 5200rpm redline of its petrol equivalent.
Toyota Australia senior manager for vehicle evaluation and regulations, Ray Munday, said the hydrogen-fuelled engine can rev higher but there’s no reason to. I assume it’s also safe to say it’s better to err on the side of caution with high-pressure hydrogen gas.
Peak torque for the hydrogen-fuelled engine is also developed high up in the rev range, similar to a non-turbo petrol engine.
Something that helps keep the van in its torque band as much as possible is the 10-speed automatic transmission. There are plenty of ratios to choose from, though it can sometimes stumble when you punch the accelerator unexpectedly.
During my drive on the test track there was a straight section where I decided to try a 0-100km/h test. I didn’t have any official timing gear with me, but using a stopwatch I clocked a 0-100km/h sprint time of around 20 seconds.
By the time I actually reached 100km/h I needed to brake quite heavily as the straight was ending very shortly. Given the lack of the power, I know I wouldn’t like to get stuck behind this car with a full load of people as it’s merging onto the freeway, for example.
The hydrogen-fuelled van is also said to have a braked towing capacity of 1500kg, which would likely also slow it down considerably.
Lastly I’d like to discuss hydrogen consumption. Around 200km of range in this prototype might be okay for some businesses that do short point-to-point shuttles, but I’m sure they’ll also be making a fair number of trips back to Altona to refuel.
I look forward to Toyota being able to drop in some larger hydrogen tanks so the claimed range figure rises to a level that’s more comparable with a similarly sized all-electric commercial van, like the Peugeot E-Expert (up to 350km).
Not to be too harsh on the Toyota Hydrogen HiAce prototype, but in its current form it’s not very powerful, doesn’t have very much range, and will likely cost an arm and a leg if it becomes commercialised.
It’s obvious Toyota’s hydrogen internal combustion engine technology is still in its infancy and I do have to give the Japanese carmaker credit for developing something outside of the box. It’s not everyday you get to drive a HiAce with a modified twin-turbo V6 crammed in it.
Despite my gripes, I’m genuinely excited to see where this kind of technology goes over the next five to 10 years.
I’m sure there is a market for this kind of high-use, high-load and low-emissions commercial vehicle that can be refuelled in a few minutes, but it might not end up being Australia.
The local hydrogen refuelling infrastructure needs to scale up in order to make this kind of vehicle viable, though the fact this prototype vehicle even exists is hopefully a step in the right direction.
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