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Hydron startup plans hydrogen-powered autonomous trucks

Using hydrogen would emit no polluting emissions from driverless trucks

Computer-generated images of Class 8 fuel cell trucks from startup Hydron that would run autonomously.

A co-founder of autonomous software trucking leader TuSimple is starting a new venture to fuel autonomous trucks with zero-emissions hydrogen.

It is a long-term bet that hydrogen will be the fuel of choice for long-haul trucking. Battery-electric trucks are more in favor even though they add significant weight that eats into cargo capacity and take a long time to charge.

“Battery electric vehicles are well-suited for shorter routes. But they are not yet capable of supporting long-haul applications,” Hydron founder Mo Chen told FreightWaves.

The announcement was light on details. Typical of startups, attracting fundraising partners is apparently a goal.

Hydron is the first company to reveal a plan connecting hydrogen-powered fuel cells with autonomous trucking. It aims to develop, manufacture and sell hydrogen-powered autonomous trucks that would minimize the carbon footprint of Class 8 heavy trucks. 

No fuel cell trucking competitors — Hyundai, Toyota, Nikola or Hyzon Motors — have laid out a plan for autonomous operation. 

“We believe our unique approach focusing on both the autonomous-ready hardware and the hydrogen fuel cell technology gives Hydron a unique advantage over other companies in the market,” Chen said. 

Hydron not working with TuSimple or Navistar

Hydron is not working with TuSimple or with Navistar, its manufacturing partner targeting a ground-up Level 4 autonomous truck in 2025. TuSimple is testing retrofitted driverless trucks in Arizona and plans to move pilots into Texas. 

Navistar parent Traton Group is invested heavily in battery development. It sees only limited applications for fuel cells in over-the-road trucking. Navistar, however, is working on fuel cell projects with Cummins and General Motors.

Chen co-founded TuSimple with current chairman and CEO Xiaodi Hou in 2015. Chen was CEO from 2015 to September 2020 and executive chairman through March. Hou took over as CEO and chairman. Chen recently left the TuSimple board. He remains a major shareholder — and a large holder of special voting stock — along with Hou.

Plug-in autonomous systems fit with Chen’s description of his startup. Startups Embark Trucks and Kodiak Robotics are refining such approaches. Other possible partners could include Tier 1 suppliers like Cummins Inc. and ZF North America.

“We will sell our trucks as autonomous ready with the ability to easily add and operate a variety of autonomous driving software,” he said. 

Hydron envisions purpose-built trucks. That likely leaves out startup Hyzon, which is retrofitting diesel-powered Freightliner Cascadias and other trucks with fuel cells. No discussions are underway with Nikola either, Chen said.

“Hydron is working closely with leading autonomous driving companies to understand technical specifications and hardware requirements,” he said.  

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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.