The ramp up, albeit at small volumes, is part of Toyota's push to jump-start the global market for fuel cell technology by feeding demand for commercial trucks.
Under CEO Koji Saito, the company has created an independent business unit called the Hydrogen Factory to spearhead hydrogen-powered, emission-free technologies as part of the company's multipath approach to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
Mitsumasa Yamagata, president of the Hydrogen Factory, said tapping into trucking will help Toyota reach fuel cell volumes as high as 200,000 commercial and passenger vehicles in 2030.
Toyota says it has business offers to support volume of 100,000 fuel cell systems in 2030, with heavy duty trucks accounting for about 35 percent of the total.
But executives forecast they can reach 200,000 thanks to newly forged partnerships with truckmaking companies. In May, for instance, Toyota agreed with Daimler Truck Holding AG to merge Toyota's Hino truckmaking subsidiary with Daimler's Mitsubishi Fuso truck unit.
Rolling out hydrogen-powered trucks is one of the that new venture's focal points.
Toyota needs to reach production volumes of at least 10,000 units a month in order for hydrogen fuel cell production to break even, Toyota Chief Technology Officer Hiroki Nakajima said. And volume can be reached only after driving down the cost of the technology, which relies on precious metals, precision manufacturing and expensive carbon fiber-wrapped tanks.
"First we need to reduce the price, then we can increase the volume," Nakajima said Tuesday at a briefing on the technology. "Once we hit a tipping point, there will be explosive expansion."
Tapping into trucks
Yamagata declined to offer a production volume figure for the Kentucky operation, though he said it would be low. He also said it was too soon to say when fuel cell output would reach 10,000 units a month on any of the company's lines. Toyota currently makes fuel cell systems at its Honsha plant in Toyota City, but it doesn't disclose volumes for that factory either.
Because trucks run on established routes, over and over, they can guarantee consistent early business for costly hydrogen stations. Trucks make it possible to sell a lot of hydrogen in one place. And this creates a baked-in network to support passenger cars when they come to market.
Also, refueling time for hydrogen is about the same as for diesel, avoiding the long waits needed to recharge an electric battery in full-electric trucks. Finally, the energy density of hydrogen allows for driving ranges on par with today's internal combustion-powered trucks.
The systems that will be made in Kentucky are based on the same technology used in the Mirai fuel cell sedan. Kentucky's dual fuel cell modules weigh about 1,400 pounds and can deliver up to 160 kilowatts of continuous power. The fuel cell kit includes a high-voltage battery, electric motors, transmission and hydrogen storage assembly.
The system used in the Mirai generates 128 kilowatts.
"While the footprint of this fuel cell project is small, the transformative potential of the technology is huge," Norm Bafunno, senior manufacturing executive at Toyota Motor North America, said when the company first announced the project two years ago. "Building a fuel cell drivetrain kit has never been done in one of our plants outside of Japan."
The powertrains will be delivered to truckmakers for use in Class 8 heavy duty trucks and be capable of hauling 80,000-pound loads for up to 300 miles, Toyota says. Toyota demonstrated the technology in a fleet of Kenworth trucks at the Port of Los Angeles that operated through 2022.
Toyota also has a next-generation fuel cell system in the works.
From 2026, the company plans to commercialize an improved system that halves the cost of the fuel stack, partly by reducing the number of cells needed. It will also increase cruising range by up to 20 percent and improve durability to more than double that of diesel engines. The new system will also be scalable to fit all types of vehicles from heavy duty trucks to passenger cars.
Toyota previewed the next-gen system at a June technology briefing at its Higashi Fuji Technical Center in Japan and demonstrated its current fuel cell system in commercial truck test drives.
Range and durability are key specs sought by commercial vehicle customers.
Yoshihiko Hamamura, chief project leader of the Hydrogen Factory, said Toyota's cells can endure racking up 1 million kilometers (621,000 miles) of driving distance.
Toyota also plans to cut the cost of the hydrogen tanks by 25 percent in the next generation.
Toyota said in 2015 that it wanted to sell 30,000 fuel cell vehicles a year in 2020, including buses, trucks and forklifts in addition to cars such as the Mirai. But it hasn't panned out that way.
From 2020 through March 31, 2023, Toyota sold a total of 23,123 fuel cell vehicles. The Mirai fuel cell car, now in its second generation as a premium full-size sedan, accounted for 22,929 of that total. The first-generation Mirai debuted in December 2014.
In the 2022 calendar year, Toyota sold 3,907 Mirais worldwide.
Toyota's next hydrogen vehicle will be a fuel-cell equipped version of the Crown sedan. It will go on sale in Japan this fall, but Toyota has no plans at present for a U.S. introduction.