Even before the war in Ukraine the price of fuel was sent through the roof, the trucking industry was under intense pressure to kick the addiction to diesel, a major contributor to climate change and urban air pollution. But it remains to be seen which technology will work best.
The truck manufacturers are divided into two camps. A team, which includes Volkswagen’s truck units at Tratton, is betting on batteries because they are widely regarded as the most efficient alternative. Other camps, including Daimler Truck and Volvo, the two largest truck manufacturers, argue that fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity – emitting only water vapor – are more understandable because they will allow long-range trucks to refuel faster.
The company’s choices can be very fruitful, helping to determine who dominates trucking in the age of electric vehicles and who wastes billions of dollars in betamax, the equivalent of electric truck technology, causing a potentially fatal error. New trucks take years to design and manufacture, so companies will now be stuck with decisions that have been made for a decade or more.
“This is obviously one of the most important technological decisions we’ve ever made,” said Andreas Gorbach, Daimler Truck’s board member, who owns Freightliner in the United States and is the world’s largest truck manufacturer.
Risks to the environment and public health are also high. If many truck manufacturers make the wrong bet, it may take longer to clear the truck. Scientists say we need to limit the worst effects of climate change. In the United States, medium and heavy duty trucks account for 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Trucks spend much more time on the road than passenger cars. Fossil fuels have added urgency to Ukraine’s war debate by underlining the financial and geopolitical risks of dependence.
While sales of electric vehicles are exploding, large truck manufacturers have begun to build only emission-free vehicles. Daimler Truck, for example, began building an electric version of its heavy-duty Etruscan truck with a maximum range of 240 miles, late last year. Tesla unveiled a design for a battery-powered semi-truck in 2017, but has not set a firm production date.
Cost will be a determining factor. Unlike car buyers, who can splurge on a car because they like the way it expresses its appearance or status, truck buyers carefully calculate how much it will cost them to buy, maintain and fuel a rig.
A critical year for electric vehicles
The popularity of battery-powered cars is growing worldwide, and even the overall auto market has stagnated.
Battery-powered trucks sell for about three times more than the equivalent diesel model, although owners can recoup much of the cost of fuel savings. According to automation experts, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will probably be more expensive, perhaps one-third more than battery-powered models. But fuel and maintenance savings could make them cheaper than diesel trucks by early 2027, according to Daimler Trucks.
“The environmental aspect is very important but no one is going to do it unless it is financially viable,” said Paul Geopis, Jim’s chief executive, a company that is building one of the largest electric car charging depots in the country. One and a half miles from Los Angeles International Airport. Zeem will recharge trucks and services and clean them for customers such as hotels, tour operators and delivery companies.
Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. Fuel cell systems are lighter than batteries, an important consideration for trucking companies that want to maximize payload. Fuel cells require less raw materials such as lithium, nickel or cobalt which are rising in price. (But they need platinum, which has risen since Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia is a major supplier.)
A new truck costs $ 140,000 or more. Mr. Garbach of Daimler said owners are concerned about the cargo-holing mile watch as much as possible and their drivers do not want to spend hours recharging batteries. “The higher the range, the higher the load, the better it is for hydrogen,” he said.
But other truck manufacturers argue that batteries are much more efficient, and are getting better all the time. They indicate that it takes a lot of energy to extract hydrogen from water. Instead of using electricity to make hydrogen, battery proponents say, why not power the truck’s motor directly?
This argument will be strengthened because technological advances have allowed manufacturers to create batteries that can save more energy per pound and recharge in minutes instead of hours. A long-distance truck that can recharge in half an hour is a few years away, says Andreas Kamel, who is in charge of Tratton’s electrification strategy, whose truck brands include Scania, Man and Navister.
“The cost advantage is to stay here and it’s significant,” Mr Kamel said.
Hydrogen Camp acknowledges that batteries are more efficient. All major truck manufacturers plan to use batteries in smaller trucks, or trucks that travel short distances. More than 200 miles a day are traveled by trucks, the kind that carries heavy loads across the United States, Europe or China.
Most countries will struggle to generate enough electricity to run a fleet of battery-powered trucks, Daimler and Volvo executives say, hydrogen is a potential limitless source of energy. They imagine a world where there is plenty of sunlight like Morocco or Australia, they use solar energy to make hydrogen which they send to the rest of the world via ships or pipelines.
Gerrit Marks, chief executive of IVECO, an Italian-based truck manufacturer, noted that Milan suffers from power outages when they run their air-conditioners in the summer. Just imagine, he said, what would happen when people started plugging in electric cars.
“If you have a heavy duty truck on the grid to charge, it won’t work,” he said. IVECO is building trucks for Nicola, a troubled American start-up that plans to offer battery-powered and hydrogen fuel cell cars.
Hydrogen is the only practical form of emissions-free energy for municipal vehicles, such as energy-hungry construction equipment or fire trucks, says Mr. Marx.
The hydrogen produced today is mostly extracted from natural gas, a process that produces more greenhouse gases than burning diesel. So-called green hydrogen produced with solar or water power is scarce and expensive. Hydrogen enthusiasts say supply will expand rapidly and prices will fall, as demand from steel, chemical and fertilizer producers who are under pressure to reduce emissions rise. They will use hydrogen to run smelters and other industrial activities.
“Less than 10 percent of green hydrogen will be transported by road,” said Lars Stenkvist, a member of Volvo’s executive board responsible for the technology. “We will tailor piggybacks to the needs and infrastructure of other industries.”
Hydrogen is backed by a strong alliance of large corporations called H2Accelerate, which includes truck manufacturers Daimler, Volvo and IVECO; Energy companies Royal Dutch Shell, OMV of Austria and Total Energy of France; And Linde, a German producer of industrial gas. Daimler and Volvo, usually fierce rivals, have teamed up to develop fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity.
The hydrogen booster went wrong before. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Daimler and Toyota invested heavily in developing hydrogen-powered passenger cars. But battery prices have dropped and their performance has improved faster than hydrogen cars. (The Daimler Truck and Mercedes-Benz car divisions have since split into separate companies. The car division is no longer selling hydrogen cars.)
To be sure, battery-powered trucks will also require large investments in high-voltage charging stations and other infrastructure. But building a charging network can be much less expensive than setting up a green hydrogen industry with pipelines and tankers needed to transport gas.
The fear is that the electric grid will not be able to handle a fleet of battery-powered trucks, said Mr Camel of Tratton. Long-distance trucks tend to charge at night when demand from other power users is low, he said. In the United States, he said, large trucks spend a lot of time in the Midwestern and Western States with plenty of wind and solar energy.
That’s right, battery-powered trucks will hit the road first. Daimler does not plan to start mass production of a hydrogen fuel cell truck until after 2025, and in the meantime plans to offer battery power as an alternative to smaller trucks or larger trucks traveling a limited distance. Volvo and IVECO are following similar strategies.
The big risk for these companies is that the purchasing power and performance of batteries, which have already exceeded expectations, could make hydrogen trucks obsolete before they hit the market.
“The disadvantages outweigh the disadvantages,” Mr Kamel said of the battery’s power.
Evan Penn Contributing Reporting.