Hydrogen May Be Trucking’s Future

Daimler is exploring zero-emissions fuel cells to power long-haul big rigs.

May 27, 2021

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Daimler, the world’s largest maker of heavy trucks, has announced it will convert to zero-emission vehicles within 15 years, demonstrating another example of how the shift to electric power is reshaping vehicle manufacturing reports the New York Times.

Currently, zero-emission long-haul trucks are not available in large numbers, and different technology may be needed to power the electric motors. Batteries work well for delivery vehicles and other short-haul trucks, and many are already on the road. But Daimler argues that battery power is not ideal for long-haul 18-wheelers, at least with current technology. The heavy batteries subtract too much from payload, an important consideration for cost-conscious trucking companies.

Instead, Daimler and some rivals are betting on fuel cells that generate electricity from hydrogen. Fuel cells draw hydrogen gas from tanks on board the vehicle, mix it with oxygen and convert it to electricity, which drives the vehicle’s motor. This process eliminates the need to store power in batteries, and the process releases only water vapor into the atmosphere. Hydrogen fuel tanks can be refilled as fast as diesel tanks, giving them an edge over batteries that take at least twice as long to recharge. With hydrogen fuel, trucks could stay on the road for days.

Daimler last month began testing a prototype “GenH2” long-haul truck capable of logging 600 miles between visits to the hydrogen pump, but much work is required to bring down the equipment costs. Last week, company executives announced a partnership with Shell to build a “hydrogen corridor” of fueling stations spanning northern Europe. For shorter-haul trucks, Daimler announced a partnership with CATL, a Chinese company, to develop batteries, and partnerships with other companies to install high-voltage charging stations in Europe and the United States.

In March, Daimler and rival Volvo Trucks formed a joint venture to develop fuel cell systems that will convert hydrogen to electricity that powers long-distance trucks. The message is that the energy transition is too big even for a company the size of Daimler, with revenue last year of $188 billion, to manage on its own.

Daimler says its aim is to make battery-powered short-haul trucks that can compete on cost with diesel by 2025, and long-haul fuel-cell trucks that achieve diesel parity by 2027. Not everyone agrees with Daimler that hydrogen will be the future fuel of choice for long-haul trucks. Tesla, Scania and some other manufacturers consider hydrogen technology too costly and less energy efficient.

Listen to Convenience Matters Episode No. 169, “Should You Bet on Hydrogen Fuel?” as James Kast, fuel cell business analyst for Toyota North America, and David Park, fuel cell fuels infrastructure coordinator for the California Fuel Cell Partnership, discuss the role hydrogen is playing in the future of transportation.

In the NACS magazine feature, “Fuel's Errand?” industry experts provide an update of where the hydrogen market stands and how convenience retailers could leverage, if at all, emerging opportunities.