The case for fuel cell trucks grows stronger

Hydrogen fuel cell trucks can refuel in minutes and will likely be exempt from expensive toll charges, but is this enough to sway diesel supporters today? By Freddie Holmes

Tightening emissions standards around the world are forcing truck manufacturers to rethink whether diesel and natural gas will cut it in the long-term—and alternative propulsion technologies are looking increasingly attractive by comparison.

Questions remain around infrastructure, total cost of ownership and simple practicality, but the writing is on the wall: fleets cannot avoid the adoption of zero emissions technology.

Hydrogen fuel cells will battle it out with battery electric variants over the coming years, but it remains unclear which solution will capture the greatest market share. With longer driving range and shorter stops between refuelling compared to a plug-in vehicle, the fuel cell truck looks set to prevail in the long-haul space at least.

Toyota ‘Project Portal’ hydrogen truck

Most major fleets remain wary for the moment, but a number of factors could spur fleets to go green. Depending on the annual mileage, a heavy-duty (HD) diesel truck in Germany can accrue yearly toll costs of between €20,000 to €40,000 (US$22,450 – US$44,910). The cost is even steeper in Switzerland, with an eye watering €90,000 to €190,000 worst-case scenario for a truck running 200,000 kilometres (124,274 miles) per year.

The general expectation is that electric trucks will be exempt from such tolls in coming years, while diesel trucks will still have to front up. Fleet operators may weigh up the cost of investing in zero emissions trucks against the fees that arise at toll bridges, which steadily eat into profit margins. Failure to meet fleet average emissions would also incur hefty fines, and investing early could well prove more palatable.

“The message is that CO2 regulations will continue to get stricter, and the industry has to move towards cleaner alternative powertrains,” said William Resende, Global Product Manager, Fuel Cell Systems at AVL during a recent Automotive World webinar. “Local commercial vehicle emissions are causing a lot of respiratory health issues and noise pollution, which is also driving the push for bans of ICEs in the city.”

But it is not only government and regulatory forces at play. The market itself could bring its own indirect subsidies, such as the opportunity to charge consumers extra for zero emissions delivery services. This would have a knock-on effect for the entire value chain. “Imagine if Amazon starts offering the option for emissions-free delivery,” said Resende. “That means that all the other companies that have to transport those goods must have zero emissions transportation. This will bring whole changes across the supply chain, and they have to be ready with emissions-free vehicles.”

Consumers can already offset their CO2 contributions by paying a little extra when travelling by plane. Resende expects the trucking sector to benefit from a similar trend, although those ramped-up delivery fees would essentially help the operator reclaim investment costs.

Shell hydrogen fuelling nozzle
Fuel cell trucks can be refuelled and back on the road in minutes

In terms of the technology itself, hydrogen fuel cells certainly appear to be well suited to long-haul freight. Day-to-day usability will see very little change compared to a traditional diesel truck—drivers will pull into a station, connect a pump and fill up before setting off. That said, it will take longer to fill up with hydrogen than it will with diesel: just one minute of refuelling with a high speed diesel pump offers around 400km of range.

Hydrogen pumps are scheduled for an upgrade, however, and the time difference should be barely noticeable in future. The H70HF standard due to be introduced by 2020—which differs to the SAEJ2601 standard for passenger cars—will allow heavy trucks to gain around 100km per minute of refuelling. “This is plenty good enough,” said Resende. “Most trucks stop for an hour anyway so the driver can eat, relax or sleep. In five minutes he or she will have enough range to drive the next 500 kilometres.”

The likes of Nikola, Toyota, Hyundai and Daimler are leading the push for fuel cell trucks in the world’s major markets, but it is expected to take years before diesel loses any meaningful market share.

Follow this link to see a replay of the full webinar.