Automakers Shift Hydrogen Focus From Cars to Semis

Hydrogen-powered big rigs would emit no pollutants—just water vapor. 

October 27, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Automakers have spent decades developing hydrogen fuel cells as a sustainable alternative for use in cars. But now, they’re turning their attention to semi-trucks, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Fuel cells draw hydrogen gas from tanks on board the truck, mix it with oxygen and convert it to electricity, which drives the vehicle’s motor. This process eliminates the need to store power in heavy stacks of batteries, and it releases only water vapor into the atmosphere. With the availability of hydrogen fuel, trucks could stay on the road for days, which would be a big advantage for trucks that travel long distances and need to refuel quickly.

Europe and other regions have toughened regulations about emissions, and fleet operators want to cut their pollution risk by replacing their diesel trucks. A new California law, for example, will require commercial-truck sellers to include at least some zero-emission models by 2024. “It’s clear that hydrogen fuel-cell trucks are needed,” said Andrew Lund, chief engineer for the technology, Toyota. “They provide technical solutions that other technologies cannot meet in the long run.”

Truck manufacturers have been pursuing battery-electric technology for smaller trucks and buses that can be recharged for several hours at night. But batteries are less practical for large trucks that haul trailers long distances, often overnight, hydrogen advocates say. The stacks of lithium-ion batteries needed to power those rigs can weigh 25,000 pounds, making them less efficient.

Originally, General Motors envisioned fuel cells as the primary technology for moving consumers to emission-free cars. However, the expense of the vehicles and the many stations required for convenient refueling have thwarted those efforts. Today, there are only three fuel-cell car models on sale in the U.S. from mainstream automakers—Toyota, Hyundai and Honda. In 2019, sales of these three totaled around 2,000 units, which is less than the average number of Ford F-150 pickup trucks sold in a single day. Meanwhile, the performance and durability of hydrogen-powered trucks remains unknown.

To establish hydrogen as a viable alternative, trucking companies and their customers likely will have to accept higher costs for moving freight, according to Amy Davis, president of the new power business unit for engine maker Cummins, an Indiana engines and company. Still, advancements in hydrogen technology with an emphasis on heavy-duty trucks instead of cars is beginning to make fuel-cell vehicles a reality, reports USA Today.

The truck manufacturing industry is projected to have $27.5 billion in 2020 revenue, employ more than 25,000 workers and pay $1.7 billion in wages, according to research firm IBISWorld. A shift in powertrains could require the industry to overhaul how it sources components, hires workers and meets regulatory standards. Several companies are driving the trend.

Toyota of Japan is the leading seller of hydrogen cars in the U.S. Last year, it sold more than 1,500 units of the Toyota Mirai, a midsize sedan, mostly to customers in California who live near hydrogen fueling stations. Hyundai of Korea has been working on hydrogen fuel cells for years and recently began selling the Nexo SUV, which gets 350 miles on a tank of hydrogen, while Volvo and Daimler have announced a joint venture to make hydrogen fuel cells for heavy-duty trucks.

Also this year, Phoenix-based Nikola announced a partnership with GM that aims to deliver two hydrogen-fueled heavy-duty trucks, the Nikola Two and the Tre, within the next few years. But the company has faced increasing skepticism amid questions about the legitimacy of its plans. Meanwhile  Tesla exploded onto the automotive scene more than a decade ago, promising new electric-vehicle technology and pledging to revolutionize transportation.

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