Even before the war in Ukraine led to high fuel prices, the transport industry was under strong pressure to abandon its addiction to diesel, which is a major contributor to climate change and urban air pollution. But he still needs to figure out which technology will work best.
Truck manufacturers are divided into two bearings. One faction, which includes Traton, Volkswagen’s truck division, relies on batteries because they are considered the most efficient option. The other camp, which includes Daimler Truck and Volvo, the two largest truck manufacturers, argues that fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity – emitting only water vapor – make more sense because they would allow trucks to be loaded quickly on long journeys. distances.
The choice companies make can be extremely important in helping to determine who dominates trucks in the electric vehicle era and who ultimately loses billions of dollars to the Betamax equivalent of electric truck technology, a potentially fatal mistake. Designing and manufacturing new trucks takes years, so companies will be locked into the decisions they make now, for a decade or more.
“This is obviously one of the most important technological decisions we have to make,” said Andreas Gorbach, a board member of Daimler Truck, which owns Freightliner in the United States and is the world’s largest truck manufacturer.
The stakes for the environment and public health are also high. If many truck manufacturers bet incorrectly, cleaning trucks can take much longer than 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 tend to spend much more time on the road than cars. The war in Ukraine added urgency to the debate, highlighting the financial and geopolitical risks of fossil fuel dependence.
While sales of electric cars are growing, major truck manufacturers have only just begun to mass-produce zero-emission vehicles. Daimler Truck, for example, began producing an electric version of its Actros heavy-duty truck with a maximum range of 240 miles late last year. Tesla introduced a design for a semi-truck with batteries in 2017, but has not set a fixed date for production.
Costs will be the deciding factor. Unlike car buyers, who can scatter with a vehicle because they like the way it looks or the status it conveys, truck buyers carefully calculate how much it will cost to buy, maintain and charge a platform.
Critical year for electric vehicles
The popularity of battery-powered cars is growing worldwide, even as the entire car market stagnates.
Battery-powered trucks sell for about three times more than equivalent diesel models, although owners can recoup much of the cost by saving fuel. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are likely to be even more expensive, perhaps a third more than battery-powered models, according to automotive experts. But fuel and maintenance savings could make them cheaper to own than diesel trucks as early as 2027, according to Daimler Truck.
“The environment is extremely important, but if there is no financial sense, no one will,” said Paul Jupis, CEO of Zeem, a company that is building one of the largest electric vehicle depots in the country. about one and a half miles from Los Angeles International Airport. Zeem will recharge, service and clean trucks for customers such as hotels, tour operators and delivery companies.
Proponents of hydrogen trucks say their preferred semi-finished products will load as fast as conventional diesel platforms and weigh less. Fuel cell systems are lighter than batteries, which is an important consideration for transport companies looking to maximize payloads. Fuel cells usually require fewer raw materials such as lithium, nickel or cobalt, which increase in price. (However, they demanded platinum, which jumped in price after Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia is a major supplier.)
A new truck costs $ 140,000 or more. Owners who want to travel as many miles as possible will not want their drivers to spend hours recharging their batteries, said Mr Gorbach of Daimler. “The longer the range, the greater the load, the better for hydrogen,” he said.
But other truck manufacturers say batteries are much more efficient and getting better all the time. They point out that huge amounts of energy are needed to extract hydrogen from water. Instead of using electricity to produce hydrogen, battery proponents say why not just let the energy power the truck’s engines directly?
This argument will become stronger as technical advances allow manufacturers to produce batteries that can store more energy per kilogram and that can be recharged in minutes instead of hours. A long-distance truck that can be charged in half an hour is a few years away, said Andreas Camel, who is responsible for Traton’s electrification strategy, whose truck brands include Scania, MAN and Navistar.
“The price advantage is here to stay and it’s significant,” Mr Camel said.
Hydrogen bearing recognizes that batteries are more efficient. All major truck manufacturers plan to use batteries in smaller trucks or trucks that travel shorter distances. The debate is about what makes the most sense for long-haul trucks traveling more than 200 miles a day, of the type that carry heavy loads across the width of the United States, Europe or China.
Most countries will struggle to produce enough electricity to run fleets of battery-powered trucks, say Daimler and Volvo executives, saying hydrogen is a potentially unlimited source of energy. They imagine a world in which countries that have a lot of sunlight, such as Morocco or Australia, use solar energy to produce hydrogen, which they send by ship or pipeline to the rest of the world.
Gerrit Marx, CEO of IVECO, a truck manufacturer based in Italy, noted that Milan suffers from power outages in the summer when people turn on their air conditioners. Just imagine, he said, what will happen when people start turning on electric vehicles.
“If you have heavy trucks in the charging network, it won’t work,” he said. IVECO manufactures trucks for Nikola, a troubled US startup that plans to offer vehicles with batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.
Hydrogen is also the only practical form of zero-emission energy for energy-hungry construction equipment or municipal vehicles such as fire engines, Mr Marx said.
Much of the hydrogen produced today is extracted from natural gas, a process that generates more greenhouse gases than diesel combustion. So-called green hydrogen, produced by solar or water energy, is rare and expensive. Hydrogen enthusiasts say supply will expand rapidly and prices will fall due to demand from steel, chemical and fertilizer producers, who are also under pressure to reduce emissions. They will use hydrogen to control smelters and other industrial operations.
“Less than 10 percent of green hydrogen will go to road transport,” said Lars Stenkvist, Volvo’s executive member of technology. “We will benefit from demand and infrastructure from other industries.”
Hydrogen is backed by a great alliance of large corporations, H2Accelerate, which includes truck manufacturers Daimler, Volvo and IVECO; the energy companies Royal Dutch Shell, OMV from Austria and TotalEnergies from France; and Linde, a German industrial gas producer. Daimler and Volvo, usually strong rivals, have teamed up to develop fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity.
Hydrogen amplifiers have been wrong before. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Daimler and Toyota invested heavily in the development of cars that would run on hydrogen fuel cells. But the price of batteries has fallen and their performance has improved faster than that of hydrogen cars. (Since then, Daimler Truck and the Mercedes-Benz automotive division have split into separate companies. The automotive division no longer sells hydrogen vehicles.)
Of course, battery trucks will also require large investments in high-voltage charging stations and other infrastructure. But building a charging network is likely to be much cheaper than setting up a green hydrogen industry, along with the pipelines and tankers needed to transport gas.
Concerns that the power grid could not cope with the fleet of battery-powered trucks are exaggerated, said Mr Camel of Tratton. Long-distance trucks will charge at night when demand from other energy consumers is low, he said. In the United States, he said, big trucks spend a lot of time in the Midwest and Western States with a lot of wind and solar power.
Whoever’s right, battery-powered trucks will be the first to hit the road. Daimler has no plans to begin mass production of a hydrogen fuel cell truck by 2025, but in the meantime plans to offer battery power as an option for smaller trucks or large trucks traveling short distances. Volvo and IVECO follow similar strategies.
The big risk for these companies is that the availability and performance of batteries that have already exceeded expectations could make hydrogen trucks obsolete before they hit the market.
“The disadvantages of convenience continue to melt away,” Mr Kamel said of battery power, “and the cost benefits continue to grow.”
Ivan Penn contributed to the reporting.