Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and Isuzu Motors Limited have agreed that Honda will develop and supply the fuel cell (FC) system for the FC heavy-duty trucks Isuzu is planning to introduce in 2027.
Commercial trucks are attracting attention as a key driver of hydrogen business. In China, the world’s largest truck market, the practical use of commercial trucks equipped with a FC system is becoming widespread and at an accelerated pace, with introduction of a number of new models. How will Honda utilize the FC technologies it has amassed to date? An engineer who has been leading Honda initiatives in the field of hydrogen technology shares his stories about how Honda FC modules will be applied to commercial trucks and the progress of public-road tests being conducted inside and outside Japan.
Joined Honda in 1999 after experiencing the development of an alternative energy-powered commercial vehicle for a Japanese truck manufacturer. At Honda, Murakami has been devoting his work to the field of hydrogen technology, serving as the project leader for the development of successive generations of Honda’s fuel cell electric vehicles, and as the leader in charge of joint research on FC heavy-duty trucks with Isuzu. He is currently in charge of the development and promotion of new businesses which utilize Honda fuel cell technologies, working toward widespread utilization of hydrogen and fuel cells.
Countries around the world are exploring the potential of electricity and hydrogen in helping society to achieve carbon neutrality. Out of the two options, why is Honda trying to utilize hydrogen for commercial trucks?
One of hydrogen’s unique characteristics is that it can store and transport energy at high density. Because of these characteristics, heavy-duty trucks, which are heavier and have longer range than passenger cars, can benefit greatly from the use of hydrogen energy.
Is it difficult to achieve desirable performance with EVs?
From a carbon-neutral perspective, it makes the most sense to directly use electricity generated from renewable energy; however electricity has low energy density and is not good at “storing” the energy. EVs are suitable for commercial vehicles which are not going to be used for long distance driving. However, when it comes to heavy-duty trucks, which need to be able to handle large load capacity and long-distance driving, EVs are not practical because it will require a large capacity of batteries, and that is where hydrogen comes in.
So, FC technology is not suited to all commercial vehicles?
That’s right. Our first target is heavily-used mobility products which are suited to be powered by hydrogen. One such product is a heavy-duty truck to be used for intercity transportation. Regardless of their size, vehicles which will benefit from the utilization of hydrogen are ones that need to carry a large amount of energy to accommodate their long operating hours. That will be the deciding factor.
There are high expectations for hydrogen energy due in part to global interest in achieving carbon neutrality. How big an impact will the reduction of automobile CO2 emissions be?
According to data published by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, of the 1,044 million tonnes of overall CO2 emissions in Japan for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2021, the transportation sector was responsible for 185 million tonnes, or about 17.7% of total emissions. A breakdown of CO2 emissions in the transportation sector shows that 87.6% came from automobiles, of which 48.4% were from passenger vehicles mainly for personal use, and 39.2% were from freight vehicles, including commercial vehicles.
It is surprising that the difference in the amount of CO2 emissions between passenger and commercial vehicles is only about 10%.
I agree. There are approximately 62 million passenger vehicles and 14 million commercial vehicles* in Japan. Considering the large gap in the number of units, the amount of CO2 emissions from commercial vehicles cannot be overlooked. That said, commercial vehicle manufacturers and logistics businesses play a vital role for the Japanese economy, supporting society and people’s daily lives. The convenience we enjoy, such as next-day delivery of products purchased over the Internet, is made possible by the logistics network that stretches across Japan.
* The number of automobiles in use in Japan as of the end of 2021.
We cannot afford to lose the logistics network that supports our daily lives.
It will be vital to reduce CO2 emissions while maintaining our current standard of living. To this end, we want to utilize FC system technologies Honda has amassed through the development of its passenger vehicles to help making a difference in the world. Out of this sheer desire, we are trying to expand the use of our FC technologies into a wide range of domains, and heavy-duty trucks are our first step in this direction.
What is Honda’s approach to ensure versatile application of its FC Systems?
To ask other OEMs to use our FC systems, the durability of our system will be critical. So, we have been making significant improvements in durability. In addition, striving to defy the common perception that FC systems are expensive, we are working on cost reductions as well.
In January 2020, Honda signed an agreement with Isuzu to proceed with joint research on heavy-duty trucks utilizing FC systems as the powertrain. How is this joint research progressing?
We are moving forward to start demonstration testing of a prototype before the end of the current fiscal year (ending March 31, 2024), and we were able to obtain a Japanese license plate for use on public roads at the beginning of February of this year. By having trucking/logistics businesses actually use our prototype trucks in their daily operation, we would like to identify issues that need to be addressed.
In January of this year, Honda and Dongfeng Motor Group began joint testing of commercial trucks equipped with the Honda FC system in Hubei Province, China.
With our partners, we have been verifying the effectiveness of Honda’s FC system for use on commercial vehicles by testing various factors such as environmental compatibility, fuel efficiency and durability under a variety of operational conditions.
We started seeing FC buses on the streets of Japan. What other applications besides buses and trucks do you think hydrogen could be used for?
Another area we are exploring is stationary FC power stations, which we recently announced as one of our core domains.
I believe that hydrogen, which can stably store a large amount of energy, and stationary FC power stations, which are quiet, clean and emission-free, will become an integral part of supporting people’s daily lives and society.
What initiatives are needed to further expand the use of Honda FC systems?
I believe the most important thing is to use Honda technologies and know-how to address problems and issues facing our customers. In addition to offering various proposals from Honda, we would like to work together with a broad range of people and organizations to explore pathways to carbon neutrality and make a positive change for the world.
What are your goals in realizing a hydrogen society?
We are in the midst of a game-changing period. I believe that Honda’s electrification, hydrogen and FC system technologies developed mainly for our vehicles can be applied not only to our own products but also in other areas. We are still at the stage where we are steadily progressing day by day, but I believe that the world will begin changing dramatically at some point in the near future. When that time comes, we would like to be ready to help the new world by utilizing Honda technologies.