Battery electric vehicles might have grabbed their largest ever share of the UK new car market, but their long-term rival for the clean fuel crown is gaining ground.

Last year Toyota Motor Manufacturing UK (TMUK) announced it’s leading a consortium backed by the UK Government via the Advanced Propulsion Centre to build a hydrogen fuel cell version of the iconic Hilux pickup.

“We started the design and development work last summer, and in 2023 we built our first prototype,” explains Katherine Chamberlain, senior manager for new product development at TMUK. “We’re targeting five or six vehicles this year, which will help us prove the concept and grow the business case for future production.

“We’re working with Ricardo, who is supporting us to fast-track the development, as well as two SMEs, ETL and D2H, who are supporting us on the specialised areas of thermal and cooling management. Thatcham Research is also supporting us on serviceability and repairability, creating a fuel cell vehicle training programme for workshops, as they have done for EVs. It’s a really exciting project to lead.

“We’re fully committed to fuel cells, particularly for larger vehicles, because of the advantages in terms of range and refuelling time, but we’re also pursuing hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery electric and hydrogen combustion, keeping all options open.”

To prove this commitment, outgoing Toyota president Akio Toyoda drove a hydrogen combustion engine Corolla in Japan’s Super Taikyu endurance races last year under the pseudonym Morizo!

Skills upgrades

“Fundamentally, the fuel cell is where we’ve got this experience advantage, and it’s something we’d like to make mainstream,” continues Chamberlain.

“The training package will be ready and available by the end of this year, with different levels for drivers, repair centres and the emergency services.

“For us at TMUK, moving to hybrid was a major leap, but early feedback suggests that hydrogen is not such a huge transition for those who have already done the hybrid introduction – more of an onward step. There are certain unique aspects that technicians need to be aware of, mainly around safety, cleanliness awareness and leak checking. Importantly, this project will not only help to upskill the companies directly involved, but also our wider supply chain, which is really positive.”

From the Thatcham side, head of repair sector services, Dean Lander, adds:
“While electric vehicles are leading the volume race towards the UK government’s Road to Zero strategy, it’s important to recognise that electrification isn’t the only game in town. Many more car makers are experimenting with, or have brought to market, hydrogen-powered vehicles.

“The skills required to repair and reinstate all powertrains, traditional and new, are fundamental to the realisation of Road to Zero. And we believe that high quality training for the automotive aftermarket – which is built upon the vehicle-led research we are conducting as part of the consortium – will have a significant role in providing assurance that the shift from ICE can be delivered successfully.”

Fuel up with the IMI

As you’d expect, the IMI is setting the standard in hydrogen training. The IMI TechSafe® initiative ensures that individuals in the automotive sector have the skills to deal with new technologies, It initially focused on EVs, then expanded to include ADAS, and now includes hydrogen. It’s linked to the professional register, so anybody with a relevant qualification who has proven competency in that technology is able to have publicly available TechSafe® recognition.”

However, hydrogen isn’t just about cars. There are also commercial and agricultural hydrogen-powered vehicles, as well as motorcycles. More and more manufacturers are exploring how it can help them to phase out fossil fuels.

“Fuel cell vehicles are similar in many ways to EVs, They’re driven by electric motors but use hydrogen to create the chemical reaction that generates the electricity. Other manufacturers, JCB for example, are using hydrogen to power more conventional ICE engines, burning hydrogen in an engine combustion chamber.

The Level One Hydrogen Awareness course caters for both. It’s all about the different types of hydrogen vehicles, the risks associated with them, and basic safe working, including refuelling. For technicians with EV training, that step up should be reasonably straightforward. Those that have still not engaged with EV technology will need more support.

“The Level One qualification will serve a number of purposes, not just for vehicle technicians, but also for salespeople and first responders. We’ve had a lot of dialogue with the blue light services to upskill those attending road traffic accidents. We’re also working closely with the roadside rescue services. The way hydrogen burns is very different to petrol – fast and odourless with an almost invisible flame – so that’s a big challenge.”

The Level One course has just gone live at a handful of training centres, and the IMI expects rollout to follow a similar pattern to their EV qualifications. Just before the pandemic there were around 100 centres running its EV courses; today there are 270.

“Level One is going to add a lot of value, and Levels Two and Three are just being finalised,They will focus on safely isolating and venting the system, and start to get into diagnostics and leak detection. A team from the IMI product development, quality assurance and endpoint assessment divisions, visited the Toyota Training Academy in Derby last year. Toyota are very much a pathfinder in hydrogen, so we’re working closely with them on things like diagnostic
approach and leak detection.”

The IMI is also working with a range of partners on affordable hydrogen training rigs, continuing professional development (including methods and terminology), and emerging legislation. As we enter a pivot point in the industry, away from traditional combustion technology, it’s important to keep skills on point so you’re ready for any vehicle that may roll into the workshop.

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