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Is heavy-duty fuel cell trucking almost ready for prime time?

Demonstration projects and investments suggest greater acceptance

Here’s what we know about hydrogen-powered fuel cells for heavy-duty trucking:

  • They are not in commercial production.
  • Onboard hydrogen storage is far less efficient than battery-powered trucks.
  • Heavy-duty truck fuel cell adoption is projected to be just 2.5% by 2030.
  • Battery-electric truck proponents call fuel cells unflattering names.

.None of that has changed. Yet, something seems different. 

For starters, car and truck makers and Tier 1 suppliers are investing billions of dollars in fuel cell technology.  

Blank check companies are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to target startup and growth-stage companies across the electric vehicle spectrum. Publicly traded fuel cell entities are riding double- and triple-digit growth in their share prices.

“I think there is significant momentum,” Chris Rovik, executive program manager of Toyota (NYSE: TM) North America’s Advanced Product Planning Office, told FreightWaves in an interview. “I think all the truck [manufacturers] realize they need to have zero-emission solutions. They’re starting to understand the benefits of fuel cells in certain use cases.”

Most agree that over-the-road trucking is the best use case. Lengthy stops to recharge a battery-electric truck eat into the total cost of ownership (TCO), the holy grail of fleet managers. And adding thousands of pounds of batteries for onboard energy reduces cargo capacity.

Tesla’s battery-electric range tease

So even as Elon Musk teases a 300- to 500-mile range in the still-future battery-electric (BEV) Tesla Semi, the trucking industry is fielding more demonstrations of what Musk has called “fool cells.” None are long-haul fuel cell demos yet. Absent a breakthrough in energy density, however, battery-powered trucks aren’t going long distances either.

“Range is really about how much space you take up on the truck,” said Preston Feight, CEO of PACCAR Inc. (NASDAQ: PCAR), which is working with Toyota. “The energy density at this point is higher for fuel cells. Both types of solutions need infrastructure development.”   

Toyota has developed 10 first-generation and two second-generation Kenworth T680 Class 8 fuel cell tractors. Five are being tested in drayage operations in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Port runs are the chosen test regimen for battery-electric truck demonstrations, too. Daimler Trucks’ Freightliner and Volvo Trucks both run demo programs in California.

The fuel cell stacks in the Kenworth trucks come from Toyota’s Mirai passenger sedan. They have proved reliable so far. As for hauling freight from the water’s edge to inland distribution centers, instead of long-haul routes, Toyota is simply going with what it knows.

A good starting point

As a vehicle importer to the West Coast for decades, Toyota has mature port operations and access to hydrogen fueling. 

“It seemed like a good starting point,” Rovik said. “You’re not going to go out on a brand-new technology and start making 100,000 or 200,000 trucks a year. You’re going to start smaller and increase your scale as infrastructure sets in.”

Toyota introduced its Project Portal proof-of-concept fuel cell truck in 2017. It occupied the body of a Kenworth T660. A beta version appeared in 2019 and was the basis for the 10-truck Project Ocean demonstration fleet. 

Toyota’s Japanese subsidiary Hino Trucks plans to bring demo fuel cell conventional-body trucks to the U.S. this year. They, too, will rely on Mirai fuel cell stacks. 

“The whole point was to show we could use these stacks and systems in a light-duty vehicle and scale up from there,” Rovik said.

South Korean automaker Hyundai also plans to bring its Xcient fuel cell truck to California this year.

Dedicated routes

Most companies looking at fuel cells envision them running dedicated customer routes where hydrogen fueling is available. Startup Nikola Corp. (NASDAQ: NKLA) plans to build them as customers purchase fuel cell trucks for specific routes. Each onsite hydrogen production facility costs $17 million, according to Nikola investor documents.

Nikola recently got a deal from Arizona regulators for cheap electricity that will help it build its first hydrogen-producing station. It is intended for Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD) fuel cell trucks traveling regularly between a Van Nuys, California, brewery and a distributor in Chandler, Arizona. 

Another startup, Hyzon Motors, sees hydrogen fuel as a “behind-the-fence” operation for fleets that would return to base for refueling. 

Navistar International Corp. (NYSE: NAV) plans to use mobile hydrogen refueler OneH2 to bring hydrogen to J.B. Hunt Transport (NYSE: JBHT) trucks equipped with General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) Hydrotec fuel cell systems beginning around 2023. Like Toyota, GM’s fuel cell stacks are scaled up from the size needed for a light-duty vehicle.

Big investments

Major automotive suppliers are pouring money into fuel cells. German supplier Robert Bosch is helping Nikola develop its fuel cell system. It embedded more than 50 engineers to work alongside Nikola engineers.

“I think Bosch has invested over the last several years over 5 billion euros [$6 billion] in electrical powertrain including fuel cells,” Alex Freitag, director of diesel systems engineering, told FreightWaves. “This year alone, we’ll be spending approximately 700 million euros [$849.3 million] in developing further electric mobility.”

Freitag expects Bosch’s first fuel cell powertrains to be on the road in 2022 or 2023. “So, it’s no longer 10 years. I think, from our perspective, much less than that,” he said.

Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: DCRB) raised $570 million for Hyzon. That should lead to the spinoff of Singapore-based Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies being publicly listed in the second quarter. Volvo paid Daimler $700 million to become a joint venture partner in its fuel cell efforts.

California’s regulatory muscle

Toyota’s Rovik and Freitag agreed much of the impetus toward zero emissions is due to  stringent California emissions regulations that begin to impact sales of diesel trucks in 2024.

“Everybody’s focusing a lot on the BEV,” Freitag said. “It seems that on the Class 8 trucks, the fuel cell is preferred because of the refueling time and the range. Everything above 500 miles will be more suited for a fuel cell than a [BEV].”

Not necessarily, said Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency.

“The costs of hydrogen, vehicles and hydrogen production all must come down significantly to make hydrogen economically competitive with alternatives,” Roeth said.

A downside of pursuing parallel electric vehicle strategies is creating separate infrastructures for charging and hydrogen fueling. Both are expensive. But location is critical, Freitag said.

Multiple uses

Bosch, Cummins Inc. (NYSE: CMI), and even Daimler and Volvo Group see fuel cells being used as backup power for data centers and other installations. Working with Ceres Power Co. of the United Kingdom, Bosch aims to produce 200 megawatts of electricity from solid oxide fuel cells by 2024. That is enough to supply power to some 400,000 homes, Bosch said.

Fuel cells used in transportation typically depend on proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology. Cummins has the largest hydrogen-making PEM electrolyzer in the world. It is working on the first fuel cell-powered zero-emissions commercial ferry in North America. And It has supplied fuel cells for buses in Asia and to rail giant Alstom for use in passenger trains in Austria.

“While hydrogen fuel cell technology is very promising, we know that widespread adoption will take time,” said Amy Davis, president of Cummins’ New Power unit.

“It’s always 10 years away,” said Arshad Mansoor, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute. “Even 50 years ago, it was 10 years away.”

So, maybe prime time for fuel cells will be a longer wait after all.

Toyota equips Kenworth Class 8 truck with updated fuel cell

Navistar, GM and J.B. Hunt collaborate on fuel cell trucks

Hyzon Motors to get $570M from SPAC backing fuel cell technology

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes J.B. Hunt (No. 4).

One Comment

  1. I think that the fuel cells are a great idea and they are a great way to go, but expensive so far. For the battery route, the best way would be to have a exchange setup at the truck stops, like what you do with your propane tank, you drive in, pull out your empty battery bank, like in some of the battery fork lifts, exchange it for a fully charged battery and then you’re off and on your way. Then the truck stop can charge it and have it ready to go again in a few hours for another truck. There would be a few of course and you would just be using or renting your batteries instead of owning them. Then you wouldn’t have the long down time to recharge a BEV Semi truck as opposed to having a quicker refueling time with the hydrogen fuel cell powered semi truck. I think both of them are good options depending on what they are being used for, local vs long haul, light loads vs heavy haul, etc. all of that would have to be considered as to which one of them is best for the given situation.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is a Detroit-based award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press and most recently as Detroit Bureau Chief for Trucks.com. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.