GM recently announced that it, along with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, will debut a Chevrolet Colorado-based hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in October in Washington, D.C. We'll be there, of course, but we have a few thoughts.
Naturally, there are several benefits to using a fuel-cell powertrain in a military application (small heat signature, very quiet and could be used as a power generator, among other things), but this announcement also got us thinking about what a mainstream pickup truck could offer with such an interesting powertrain. I recently spent a week with the 2016 Toyota Mirai and it gave us a few insights.
To begin with, it seems to make sense that a hydrogen pickup would start out on a midsize platform, similar to the Colorado that the military and GM are using, due to its smaller size and weight concerns. The Mirai makes 247 pounds-feet of torque but only 151 horsepower, and though it has robust low-speed acceleration, that feel falls away quickly once you reach highway speeds. It also has a battery borrowed from Toyota's other hybrid vehicles (namely the Prius) that helps make the system more efficient, which is charged by regenerative braking.
In a pickup application, the powertrain would almost assuredly have to be more robust. The Mirai's 151 hp simply isn't enough for a truck, but adding more power output at this stage would likely have a detrimental effect on range and efficiency.
We're also skeptical as to how long the hydrogen would last if you were carrying a large payload or towing. The EPA estimates the Mirai's range at 312 miles, but our onboard computer never read more than 237 miles of range. Like many distance-to-empty onboard computers, it takes into account things like driving style, temperature and load, but that seems to be a large discrepancy. Toyota told me that the number is meant to be conservative so people don't get stranded. Even so, driving aggressively will significantly deplete range, so we imagine that towing a trailer would deplete it even more.
However, there are some real benefits to a hydrogen drivetrain. In addition to the instant torque, a hydrogen fuel-cell pickup would offer more flexibility than an electric one with one huge caveat - you'd have to live in an area with hydrogen stations. Filling one takes a few minutes longer than it does to pump gasoline; then again, it doesn't take hours to charge like most electric vehicles do. The problem is, at this point, only two spots in California (the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles and Orange County areas) have enough hydrogen stations to make a fuel-cell pickup viable.
This also would mean that a fuel-cell pickup wouldn't be a great off-road or exploration truck, either, due to a lack of fueling options. It's not as if you can throw an extra can of hydrogen in the back to add range, and if you have a problem with the drivetrain off the beaten path, good luck getting it running again.
We think that the idea of a fuel-cell pickup still has potential and we hope that the problems can get sorted through. Driving a vehicle with water being the only emission is an exciting proposition and pickups are not the most efficient vehicles around, so anything that can reduce their environmental impact should be examined. We look forward to reading your thoughts and ideas on the potential of fuel-cell technology in the comment section below.