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California ban on diesel opens new front in hydrogen vs. electric trucking battle

Biden's clean energy and transportation plan makes no mention of fuel cell vehicles.

Another front opened in the battle to level the playing field for zero-emission vehicles this week when nine California legislators sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to take a “technology-neutral” approach to decarbonization and not focus the state’s transportation sector investments solely on battery-electric vehicles, especially in medium- and heavy-duty trucking.

“We stand deeply concerned about the impacts of medium- and heavy-duty trucks, buses, vessels, locomotives and off-road equipment on our local air quality and greenhouse gas emissions … [as] these sectors are particularly difficult to convert to zero emission and are especially well-suited for hydrogen fuel cell technology,” nine members of the California Senate and Assembly wrote in the letter, which also was sent to California Air Resources Board (CARB) Chair Mary Nichols and California Energy Commission (CEC) Chair David Hochschild. 

“Many in the scientific community believe that hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are the only feasible approach to achieving zero emissions in these heavy-duty and commercial sector applications,” the letter said.

The three-page missive came in response to Newsom’s recent executive order on zero-emission vehicles, which called for, among other things, all drayage trucks to be zero emission by 2035 and all other heavy-duty vehicles to reach zero emission by 2045.

The letter goes on to chronicle what the authors see as a historically disproportionate focus on battery-electric vehicle technology through the state’s funding programs administered by CARB and the CEC. 

“We have observed that hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility solutions have been largely deprioritized compared to battery-based vehicles,” the coalition of lawmakers wrote Tuesday. “But that single technology [battery-electric] will not get us there alone and fuel cell electric vehicles will need to be a significant part of our zero-emission portfolio, particularly in the heavy-duty and commercial sectors.”

Battery-electric vs. hydrogen vs. natural gas

The perception of bias toward battery-electric vehicles has long been a point of grievance for advocates of zero or near-zero emissions technologies. Natural gas proponents, for example, charge that regulators too often bypass heavy-duty natural gas trucks, which are available now, in favor of incentives for electric big rigs, which are still largely in the pilot phase.  

The letter also comes as OEMs are stepping up commercialization of zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell trucks as the technology gains traction as an alternative to diesel. 

To wit: Engine maker Cummins Inc. (NYSE: CMI) announced this week that it is using grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a Class 8 fuel cell truck with longtime customer Navistar International Corp. (NYSE: NAV).

Also in the works is a partnership between Daimler Trucks and Volvo Group to produce heavy-duty fuel cells for trucking and stationary use in data centers. Kenworth, a PACCAR Inc. (NASDAQ: PCAR) brand, is partnering with Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) on a fleet of 10 fuel cell trucks being deployed at the Port of Los Angeles. 

“The tide is beginning to turn both in the marketplace and the statehouse. End users are calling for increased investment in fuel cell electric vehicles,” said Roxana Bekemohammad, executive director of the Western States Hydrogen Alliance (WSHA), a public-private partnership, in a statement.

Bekemohammad said the electrical grid remains increasingly unreliable and that wildfires and public safety power shutoffs continue to exacerbate that problem. “And yet,” she wrote, “some of our state’s top regulatory officials, who control hundreds of millions in zero-emission investment dollars, continue the wholly irresponsible practice of allowing their personal bias for one technology to drive agency decision-making while the accepted science so clearly shows that both technologies are critical in achieving their own stated goals.” 

Separately, President-elect Joe Biden’s clean energy and transportation plan, “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future,” gives electric vehicles plenty of play but makes no mention of fuel cell transportation.

For their part, California air quality regulators point to the state’s support of hydrogen-electric demonstration projects, including the Kenworth-Toyota Port of Long Beach “Shore to Store” pilot.

Generally speaking, many experts believe that the transition away from diesel to zero-emission vehicles will require a variety of alternative fuels.

The nine signatories of the letter called on Newsom to include hydrogen fuel cell technology in all administrative and agency efforts to achieve the goals outlined in his recent executive order 

The signatories, all Democrats, were state Sens. Bob Archuleta and Nancy Skinner and California Assembly members Wendy Carrillo, Bill Quirk, Jacqui Irwin, Mike Gipson, Marc Levine, James Ramos and Autumn Burke.

Related stories:

Hydrogen and electric forces are locked in a battle for the future of trucking

Electric, natural gas trucking sectors duel over who deserves funding — now

For trucking, a ‘polyfuel future’ awaits


  1. While your at it (producing zero emission trcks), how about also designing the trucks with the driver in mind. For example, have the compartments with optional shelves, designed space that actually will house a small refrigerator & microwave.

  2. Can you forward a download link to the letter referenced in this article? I’m in agreement with the authors and would like to contact them.


Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to lbaker@freightwaves.com.