Hydrogen, fully electric, or both? Heavy-duty trucking has some big decisions to make

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This image, from June 2022, shows a GenH2 Truck prototype being tested at a facility in Germany.
Uwe Anspach | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Last year, a truck undertook a series of journeys across the Brenner Pass, a high-altitude route linking Italy and Austria that plays an important role in the transportation of goods in Europe.

So far, so normal. This vehicle, however, was different: A hydrogen-powered prototype, it used fuel cells and, according to manufacturer Daimler Truck, emitted nothing but water vapor.

In a statement issued in November, the business said it was planning further tests of its Mercedes-Benz GenH2 Truck in mountainous areas.

“The development goal is a range of 1,000 kilometers [a little over 621 miles] and more,” the firm said, adding that it was targeting series production in the second half of the 2020s.

Daimler Truck’s tests, which are ongoing, represent just one example of how companies involved in the freight sector are looking at hydrogen.

Others include Volvo Trucks. In Sept. 2022, it said it would begin testing fuel cell electric trucks in what it called “commercial traffic” from 2025.

“Hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric trucks will be especially suitable for long distance and heavy, energy-demanding assignments,” the business, which is part of the larger Volvo Group, said.

“They could also be an option in countries where battery charging possibilities are limited,” it added.

In a sign of how collaboration could be key to the development of hydrogen powered mobility, Daimler Truck and the Volvo Group have also set up cellcentric, a joint venture focused on the manufacture of fuel cells.

The above moves come at a time when plans are being made to reduce overall transport-related emissions, including those from larger vehicles crucial to the freight industry.

The U.K., for example, has said it wants all new heavy goods vehicles there to be zero emission by 2040.

Over in the U.S., California is aiming for half of all heavy-duty truck sales in the state to be fully electric by 2035.

Elsewhere, the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, is looking to toughen up CO2 emissions standards for heavy duty vehicles like trucks.

It says this category of vehicle — which also includes long-distance and city buses — accounts for over 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from road transport within the bloc, and more than 6% of total GHG emissions there.

With major economies planning for a future centered around low and zero-emission technologies, efforts to decarbonize the freight sector will have to be ramped up.

It’s therefore no surprise that alongside hydrogen, battery electric vehicles are also being considered for trucking.

These include the Tesla Semi, Daimler Truck’s Mercedes-Benz eActros and the Volvo FH Electric. Other companies like Scania and DAF are also operating in the battery electric space.

A range of options

When it comes to the road based transportation of goods, the question of whether one technology will become dominant is an open one.  

Jonathan Walker is head of cities and infrastructure policy at trade body Logistics UK.

Citing the example of firms operating van fleets traveling “relatively limited ranges in their day to day operations,” he told CNBC that “quite a significant shift … towards electric vans” was being seen.

“Clearly, electric works very well for that sort of … urban operation,” he added, before noting that question marks still remained when it came to “the big, long distance routes.”

“We know battery technology is coming along, but hydrogen … offers the closest comparator to diesel currently, so we believe, at least in the short to medium term, it will be a mixture.”  

Other organizations trying to sketch out how the decarbonization of vehicles involved in the sector will develop include Brussels-based campaign group Transport & Environment.   

“For two-thirds of road freight activity under 400 km, battery electric trucks are the most-competitive technology and are soon going to reach cost parity with conventional diesel trucks from a total cost of ownership (TCO) perspective,” it says.

“Which zero-emission technology out of battery electric and hydrogen will prevail in the long-haul segment is less certain,” T&E adds.

“Battery electric long-haul trucks are likely to be more cost-effective and more energy efficient, whereas hydrogen fuel cell trucks may offer increased flexibility in terms of refuelling and may be better suited to certain niche applications.”

Hydrogen’s challenges

Described by the International Energy Agency as a “versatile energy carrier,” hydrogen has a diverse range of applications and can be used in a wide range of industries.

One method of producing hydrogen involves electrolysis, a process through which an electric current splits water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Some call the resulting hydrogen “green” or “renewable” if the electricity used in the process comes from renewable energy installations like wind or solar farms.

Today, the vast majority of hydrogen generation is still based on fossil fuels.

“If you look at hydrogen, for example, as a country we need to decide what it is we want to use hydrogen for,” Walker said.

He added that there were discussions “about using hydrogen for heating, using it for the railways, using it for road transport, obviously there’s a demand for hydrogen in the chemical sector.”  

“But that that needs to be determined as a country, because, you know, while hydrogen is plentiful, it’s also kind of costly, and not without its own environmental issues to produce it.”

Infrastructure key

Regardless of what technology comes out on top, one thing is certain: An extensive network for refueling and recharging hydrogen fuel cell or battery electric vehicles will be required if these vehicles are to gain any sort of foothold within the sector.

Logistics UK’s Walker told CNBC that this didn’t exist today, and stressed the importance of creating one.

“You need that resilience in the network to ensure that, actually, if a vehicle is suddenly … running out of range, through no fault of the driver, they are able to go and refuel quickly and continue their journey.”

Change on that front appears to be coming. Within the EU, for example, efforts are being made to create the conditions that would enable hydrogen trucks to travel long distances.

In March 2023, the European Commission welcomed a provisional agreement between the European Parliament and Council of the EU on the deployment of “sufficient alternative fuels infrastructure.”

The agreement contains targets related to charging stations for heavy-duty EVs and hydrogen cars and lorries.

Elsewhere, Element 2, which is based in the north of England, says it’s building a “national network of hydrogen refuelling stations … across the UK [which has left the EU] and Ireland.”

The future

As well as being used in road-based vehicles, hydrogen could also have a role to play in rail freight, with big businesses like Alstom and Engie working on fuel cell projects.

Looking ahead, Logistics UK’s Walker stressed the importance of pushing ahead with “trials of both battery electric and hydrogen HGVs for longer distance freight journeys.”

These trials, he added, needed to be “conducted swiftly, effectively and with regular reporting so the industry can … keep abreast of what is being learned.”

If trials showed a particular technology was proving “really promising” then this would in turn give industry “the confidence to work with manufacturers to invest in new technology.”

“And we will hopefully see a sort of virtuous circle of investment by the industry, [which] requires greater investment in infrastructure. And those two things go hand in hand.”