Watch Now

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

Can the truck, fuel cell and hydrogen come together for customers?

General Motorsí Hydrotec fuel cell power cubes contain more than 300 fuel cells along with thermal and power management systems. (Photo: Steve Fecht for General Motors)

Navistar International Corp. is leading a four-way collaboration to get long-haul fuel cell electric trucks and hydrogen into production by 2024 with test vehicles being piloted in late 2022.

A Class 8 International RH Series day cab from Navistar (NYSE: NAV) is the platform with a target range of more than 500 miles and 15-minute refueling.

General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) will use two Hydrotec fuel cell power cubes as the power plant replacing the RH Series diesel engine. Each power cube contains 300 fuel cells with thermal and power management systems.

Mobile hydrogen producer OneH2 will make the fuel by steam reforming of methane gas.

J.B. Hunt Transport Inc., a unit of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. (NASDAQ: JBHT), will test the trucks on yet-to-be determined dedicated routes.

“After investigating all the alternatives, we are coming up with a model we believe can be highly successful, which is this decentralized way of distributing hydrogen at an affordable cost and enable a longer range for vehicles operating in long haul,” Navistar CEO and President Persio Lisboa said on a media conference call Tuesday.

Cummins partnership continues

Navistar recently announced a hydrogen fuel cell testing program with its longtime engine manufacturing partner Cummins Inc. (NYSE: CMI) to build a fuel cell truck for testing by Werner Enterprises (NASDAQ: WERN). 

The addition of a hydrogen fuel provider distinguishes Wednesday’s announcement from Navistar’s earlier collaboration. 

“It is probably the most-integrated solution in the market in North America,” Lisboa said.

“Hopefully it’s going to gain scale enough that it’s going to enable the nationwide infrastructure of hydrogen.”

Navistar is taking a minority financial stake in Longview, North Carolina-based OneH2. Lisboa declined to disclose the amount.

Coincidentally, Cummins said Tuesday its 20-megawatt proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer began generating green hydrogen in late 2020. The system at an Air Liquide hydrogen production facility in Becancour, Quebec, can produce more than 3,000 tons of hydrogen a year using hydropower.

Leapfrogging the competition?

Just as it did last fall in announcing a partnership with autonomous software startup TuSimple to bring a Level 4 autonomous truck to market by 2024, Navistar appears to be pushing to be a market leader in fuel cells. 

Larger competitors Daimler Trucks and Volvo Group formed a joint venture last year aimed at building fuel cell trucks and stationary fuel cells for data centers by late this decade. Toyota (NYSE: TM) and Kenworth Truck, a PACCAR Inc. (NASDAQ: PCAR) brand, are testing a few Class 8 T680 models equipped with fuel cell stacks from Toyota Mirai passenger cars. 

Startup electric truck maker Nikola Corp. (NASDAQ: NKLA) plans to have a couple of fuel cell trucks in testing with Anheuser Busch InBev S.A. (NYSE: BUD) in 2022. Nikola also plans to build a network of hydrogen fuel cell stations. Each station could cost $17 million, according to the company’s investor deck.

Hydrogen refueling time is on par with diesel at about 15 minutes. Battery-powered battery electric trucks require an hour or more to recharge, even with direct current (DC) fast charging. 

The RH Series fuel cell electric weighs more than a diesel truck but less than a battery-electric truck, according to Gary Horvat, Navistar vice president of Emobility, which develops Navistar’s battery-electric vehicle platforms.

“The challenge for Class 8 trucks is if you want to go [longer] range, you have to add more batteries,” Lisboa said. “And that takes a lot of payload out of the customer’s business. Once that truck stops after 500 miles, the charging time is much longer.”

Engaging GM

As part of the collaboration, GM is showing its Hydrotec fuel cell powercube for the first time.

The automaker has 55 years of experience in fuel cells dating to 1966. Most of its 3.2 million miles of fuel cell operation occurred more than a decade ago. In 2016, it created the wildly popular Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 research vehicle for the U.S. Army. In 2017, GM formed a fuel cell manufacturing joint venture with Honda Motor Co. (NYSE: HMC) following four years of engineering collaboration.   

GM would confirm neither the manufacturing location for the power cube nor whether it has other customers for it.

“I’m not going to make any new news on customer applications,” said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM’s global fuel cell business. “This is a great opportunity that’s unique in the industry. We have end-to-end coverage with a complete ecosystem.”

GM has said it may supply Hydrotec systems for second-generation Nikola trucks. But the startup has worked with German supplier Robert Bosch on fuel cells for its initial trucks.

Navistar builds conventionally powered Class 4-6 medium-duty pickup trucks for GM in Springfield, Ohio. It also makes chassis for full-size GM vans assembled in Wentzville, Missouri.

Moving hydrogen

H2One is a privately held manufacturer of hydrogen fuel production and distribution equipment and a fuel producer. It reformulates relatively inexpensive steam methane into hydrogen that can be trucked to a site or produced locally. Most of its customers operate fuel cell-powered forklifts.

“We can essentially produce hydrogen in modularized form for use at distribution centers or at service centers,” OneH2 CEO and President Paul Dawson said. “We don’t necessarily need to build a mega-style plant and haul miles to the customer for use. You can deliver a trailer of hydrogen for truck refueling.

“Once you start to scale up into tens of trucks, the approach is to put a small-scale hydrogen production unit at the distribution center of the factory or even a truck service center and refuel at the module,” he said. “So you’re basically producing hydrogen fuel on demand to refuel a truck.”

OneH2 provides the flexibility to scale operations as demand grows, Lisboa said. OneH2 plans to incorporate more than 2,000 of the RH Series fuel cell trucks into existing fleets “in the near term,” according to Navistar’s press release. Neither Dawson nor Lisboa offered further specifics other than to say it would follow the pilot.

“There’s been a lot of interest from our customers in general on how to do it,” he said. “But the main question that comes with that interest is: ‘How do we operate these units without the distribution of hydrogen?’”

Picking routes

J.B. Hunt is a longtime Navistar customer. It took delivery of its 5,000th International LT Series model last summer. It is eager to see how to integrate hydrogen into its operations, Chief Operating Officer Nick Hobbs said.

“We’ve got 521 unique locations across the U.S. that we could deploy them to,” he said. “As we start talking with some of our customers and looking at the exact application, we have all kinds of flexibility on where it might go. We’re based on site with our customers from five trucks to 200 trucks at a location.”

Cummins, Navistar developing fuel cell truck for Werner testing

GM may supply fuel cells to Nikola

Navistar skips incentive chase to get electric vehicles to diesel price parity

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.