Can Automakers Revive Hydrogen in Pickup and Light Vehicle Segments?

Toyota is piloting a Hilux compact pickup with a hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain, while GM and Honda explore hydrogen light passenger vehicles and Stellantis develops light commercial vehicles.

David Kiley, Senior Editor

December 21, 2022

5 Min Read

Toyota introduces a hydrogen fuel-cell-powered pickup truck in the U.K., indicating the automaker sees more of a future for hydrogen light-duty and passenger vehicles than a lot of other automakers and even hydrogen power advocates and enthusiasts.

Toyota U.K. is piloting a Hilux midsize pickup with the same fuel-cell powertrain found in the Toyota Mirai. The Hilux, similar in size to the Ford Ranger, is the No.1 midsize truck globally.

The fuel cell is mounted under the hood and three hydrogen tanks sit below the cabin. A single electric motor drives the rear wheels, but it can be adapted for four-wheel-drive operation.

The company also is testing the viability of burning hydrogen in a modified internal-combustion engine (ICE). Toyota engineers converted the 1.6L turbocharged 3-cyl. from its GR Corolla with high-pressure hydrogen injectors and put it in a Corolla Cross subcompact SUV, which it is testing in Japan.


The automaker has been using hydrogen for powering vehicles since 1992. The Mirai, its first model of hydrogen-powered car, released to the public in limited markets and numbers in 2014. It has updated the model since then, with interest rising in it globally. Aside from hydrogen passenger vehicles, Toyota has also been developing other types of vehicles powered by hydrogen including a bus model called Sora in addition to several heavy-duty truck prototypes. 

Toyota, which pioneered the gasoline-hybrid engine for large-volume production, is bucking some assumptions about the future of mobility concerning batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. Conventional wisdom is that batteries will replace gasoline in light-duty passenger vehicles to meet international targets for lowering carbon emissions, while hydrogen fuel cells are being positioned to replace diesel in heavy trucks, stationary power and farm and mining vehicles.

The hydrogen fuel cell in the Hilux has been developed in partnership with Yamaha.

The project comes less than a year after a joint announcement by Toyota, Yamaha, Mazda, Kawasaki and Subaru that the companies are collaborating on exploring avenues for expanding the range of fuel options, including hydrogen, that preserve the IC engine, including a V-8 that would be suitable for full-size pickups, potentially heavy-duty pickups and performance sports cars.

“Hydrogen engines house the potential to be carbon-neutral while keeping our passion for the internal-combustion engine alive at the same time,” said Yamaha Motor President Yoshihiro Hidaka at the time of the announcement. “Teaming up with companies with different corporate cultures and areas of expertise, as well as growing the number of partners we have, is how we want to lead the way into the future.”

The V-8 developed by Yamaha, and designed to run on hydrogen, starts out as the 5.0L V-8 found in Toyotas including the Lexus IS500 F Sport Performance, RC F and other performance variants. Power from the hydrogen-powered powertrain isn’t far off the performance numbers of the ICE Lexus is able to achieve with gasoline. When run on hydrogen, Yamaha claims 455 hp (at 6,800 rpm) and 398 lb.-ft. (540 Nm) of torque (at 3,600 rpm).

Mobility powered by hydrogen fuel cells has occupied the backwater of alternative energy for the past quarter-century owing mainly to a lack of infrastructure to support refueling. But worries over the future supply chain of lithium and nickel needed for batteries, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and manipulation of oil and gas prices, and North American politics driving more energy self-sufficiency are spiking investments in hydrogen power, especially green hydrogen that is created by renewable energy like wind and solar.

Significantly, the U.S. government is funding the development of hydrogen hubs that will create hydrogen chiefly from renewable energy and provide a distribution network for a of hydrogen fueling stations across the country. The proposals for hub locations from states are being reviewed by the Biden Admin. with an eye on optimizing heavy truck routes from major ports to inland geographic markets.

Honda recently announced it is also continuing with a project to put fuel cells in more light vehicles, including offering a hydrogen fuel-cell version of its CR-V SUV in the U.S. for the 2024 model year.

General Motors, too, is investing in developing hydrogen-powered light vehicles as part of its $35 billion investment in electric vehicles. The company sees hydrogen as “viable” for light vehicles as well as big-rig trucks and rail, maritime transport and military applications.

Ford, by contrast, is focusing on batteries for passenger vehicles while also participating in a project to test the viability of fuel cells to replace diesel in Super Duty work pickups. The automaker is working on a prototype hydrogen-powered Super Duty F-Series as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SuperTruck 3 program, which seeks to significantly reduce emissions in medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

Stellantis recently announced the mass production of Peugeot, Citroen and Opel light-commercial vehicles powered by hydrogen at its Hordain, France, plant. The Stellantis vehicles will be assembled at the plant’s multi-energy production line, which already makes electric and ICE versions of the “K-Zero” daily.

Hydrogen undoubtedly will trail batteries in the displacement of ICE engines. But as companies test performance, ease of refueling and infrastructure completion, the marketplace will find the best, most appropriate uses of hydrogen energy – and for obvious reasons. Hydrogen is the ultimate renewable, clean energy. And as the infrastructure builds out, eliminating the inconvenience of ownership today, consumer acceptance should follow.

About the Author(s)

David Kiley

Senior Editor, WardsAuto

David Kiley is an award winning journalist. Prior to joining WardsAuto, Kiley held senior editorial posts at USA Today, Businessweek, AOL Autos/Autoblog and Adweek, as well as being a contributor to Forbes, Fortune, Popular Mechanics and more.

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