Truckmakers face a technological dilemma: batteries or hydrogen?

Under pressure to cut emissions, truck manufacturers are choosing between batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.  Mistakes can cost billions of dollars.

Autocar ProfessionalDaimler’s E-Mobility Group launch charging network for battery …

Even before the war in Ukraine sent fuel prices through the roof, the trucking industry was under intense pressure to kick off its addiction to diesel, a major contributor to climate change and urban air pollution.  But it still needs to figure out which technology will do the job better.

Truck manufacturers are divided into two camps.  A faction consisting of a truck unit in Tratton, Volkswagen, is betting on batteries because they are widely regarded as the most effective option.  The other camp, which includes two large truck manufacturers, Daimler Truck and Volvo, makes fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity – only to evaporate water – making more sense because they allow long-haul trucks to refuel quickly.

The choice that companies make can greatly affect the decision of who dominates trucking in the electric vehicle era and who is wasting billions of dollars on Betamax, the equivalent of electric truck technology.  It takes years to design and produce new trucks, so companies are now locked into decisions that take a decade or more.

“This is certainly one of the most important technology decisions we have to make,” said Andreas Gorbach, a member of Daimler Truck’s management board, which owns Freightliner in the United States and is the world’s largest truck manufacturer.

The share of the environment and public health is also high.  If many truck manufacturers make a mistake, it may take more time to clean trucking than scientists say we should limit the bad effects of climate change.  In the United States, medium and heavy trucks account for 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.  Trucks spend extra time on the street than passenger cars. The war in Ukraine has added to the debate, underscoring the economic and geopolitical dangers of fossil fuel dependence.

As sales of electric cars continue to explode, large truck manufacturers have begun producing massive amounts of emission-free vehicles.  Daimler Truck, for example, began producing an electric version of its heavy-duty octross truck with a maximum range of 240 miles at the end of last year.  Tesla unveiled the design of a battery-powered semi-truck in 2017 but no firm production date has been set.

Cost will be the deciding factor.  Unlike car buyers, who flirt with the vehicle because they like the look of it or the condition it conveys, truck buyers carefully calculate how much it will cost to buy, maintain and refuel a rig.

Battery-powered trucks sell for up to three times more than equivalent diesel models, although the owner can reimburse for the cost of fuel savings.  Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are probably more expensive, perhaps one-third more than battery-powered models, according to auto experts.  But according to Daimler Truck, savings in fuel and maintenance may be cheaper to own than diesel trucks by early 2027.

“The environmental side is hugely important, but if it doesn’t make financial sense, nobody’s going to do it,” said Paul Giopis, chief executive of Zeme, building one of the largest electric vehicle charging depots in the country.  About one and a half miles from Los Angeles International Airport.  Zeem recharges, serves, and cleans trucks for clients such as hotels, tour operators and delivery companies.

Proponents of hydrogen trucks argue that their preferred semis fuel is as fast as conventional diesel rigs and has less weight.  Fuel cell systems are lighter than batteries, an important consideration for trucking companies that want to maximise payload.  Fuel cells require fewer raw materials, such as lithium, nickel or cobalt, which are rising in price.  (However, they do need platinum. The price skyrocketed after Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia is a major supplier.)

The cost of a new truck is $ 140,000 or more.  Owners interested in clocking as many cargo-hauling miles as possible don’t want their drivers to spend hours recharging their batteries, said Mr Gorbach of Daimler.  “The longer the range, the better the load, that’s higher for hydrogen,” he said.

But other truck manufacturers argue that batteries are more efficient and get better all the time.  They suggest that an enormous amount of energy is needed to extract hydrogen from the water.  Instead of using electricity to make hydrogen, proponents of the battery say, why not let the power go directly to the truck’s motors?

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Navistar’s electric medium-duty truck.  As sales of electric cars continue to explode, large truck manufacturers have begun producing massive amounts of emission-free vehicles.  Credit … Sylvia Jarus for the New York Times

That argument is strengthened by the fact that technological advances allow manufacturers to produce batteries that can store more energy per pound and can be recharged in minutes, rather than hours.  Andreas Kummel, who is in charge of the electrification strategy at Troughton, said the long-haul truck, which can be recharged in a half hour, is a few years away, and whose truck brands include Scania, Man and Navistar.

“The cost benefit is here to stay, and it’s significant,” Mr Kammel said.

The Hydrogen Camp admits that batteries are more efficient.  All major truck manufacturers plan to use batteries in small trucks or short-haul trucks.  There is debate about what makes more sense for long-haul trucks that travel more than 200 miles a day, which carry heavy loads across the United States, Europe or China.

While most countries struggle to generate enough electricity to drive the fleet of battery-powered trucks, Daimler and Volvo executives argue that hydrogen is a potential unlimited source of energy.  They create a world where most sunshine countries, such as Morocco or Australia, use solar power to produce hydrogen and send it to the rest of the world by ship or pipeline.

Gerrit Marks, chief executive of IVECO, an Italian-based truck manufacturer, noted that Milan suffers power outages during the summer when people run their air conditioning.  Imagine what happens when people start plugging in electric vehicles, โ€he said.

“If you’ve got heavy responsibility vehicles on the grid for charging, it might not work,” he said. IVECO is manufacturing trucks for Nicola, planning to deliver troubled American start-up battery powered and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Mr Marks said hydrogen is the only practical form of emission-free energy for municipal vehicles such as energy-hungry construction equipment or fire trucks.

Most of the hydrogen produced today is extracted from natural gas, a process that produces more greenhouse gases than burning diesel.  Green hydrogen produced by solar or water energy is scarce and expensive.  Hydrogen enthusiasts say the supply will expand exponentially as demand from steel, chemical and fertiliser producers diminishes and prices are under pressure to reduce emissions.  They use hydrogen to run smelters and other industrial operations.

“Less than 10 percent of green hydrogen is directed to road transport,” said Lars Steinquist, a member of Volvo’s executive board responsible for the technology. “We are piggybacking on call for and infrastructure from different industries.”

Hydrogen truck manufacturer Daimler, backed by a formidable alliance of large corporations called H2Accelerate, which includes Volvo and IVECO;  Energy companies Royal Dutch Shell, Austria’s OMV and France’s Total Energies;  And Linde, a German producer of industrial gas.  Daimler and Volvo, often fierce competitors, have teamed up to develop fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity.

Proponents of hydrogen trucks argue that their preferred semis fuel is as fast as conventional diesel rigs and has less weight.  Credit … Mustafa Abdul Aziz for The New York Times

Hydrogen boosters are wrong first.  In the 1990s and early 2000s, Daimler and Toyota invested heavily in developing passenger cars that could move on hydrogen fuel cells.  But the price of batteries fell and their performance improved much faster than hydrogen cars.  (Daimler Truck and Mercedes-Benz car division are separate companies. The vehicle department now does not sell hydrogen vehicles.

To be sure, battery-powered trucks require significant investment in high-voltage charging stations and other infrastructure.  But building a charging network is much less expensive than establishing a green hydrogen industry with pipelines and tankers needed to transport gas.

Mr Kammel of Troughton said the fear of not being able to handle the bulk of the electric grid battery-powered trucks was overwhelming.  Long-haul trucks charge at night, when demand from other energy users is low, he said.  In the United States, big trucks spend a lot of time in the Midwestern and Western states with enough wind and solar power, he said.

Anyway, battery-powered trucks first hit the road.  Daimler does not plan to produce a hydrogen fuel cell truck in large quantities after 2025, and in the meantime offers battery power as an option for smaller trucks or larger trucks travelling a limited distance.  Volvo and IVECO are following similar strategies.

The biggest risk for those companies is that the affordability and performance of the batteries have already exceeded expectations, making hydrogen trucks obsolete before they can be marketed.

“The disadvantages of convenience continue to melt,” Mr. Kummel said of battery power, “and the cost advantages continue to grow.”

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