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Truck Tech: Hydrogen safety whistle edition

A hydrogen safety education campaign and tracking TuSimple's 'driver out' pilot

Editor’s Note: Updates with first Nikola Tre deliveries to Total Transportation Services; Adds video

The Compressed Gas Association is calling out hydrogen safety as newcomers plan to make and distribute it as a transportation fuel; TuSimple is still rolling on its driverless pilot, it just won’t say exactly when.

Dropping the safety flag on hydrogen

Maybe you’ve heard of the Compressed Gas Association. Before a Dec. 6 press release announced the launch of the “Safety is Step One” hydrogen education campaign, I had not.  Hydrogen advocacy groups like the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association, Hydrogen Forward, California Fuel Cell Partnership and others became familiar. But not the CGA.

So a few questions seemed in order, starting with: “Who are these folks?” followed by determining whether they are playing well with others in the hydrogen space or unilaterally throwing out safety to get attention. 

First, the CGA is plenty legit. Founded in 1913, the CGA is five years older than the 103-year-old American National Standards Institute of which it is a member. ANSI is the private nonprofit organization that oversees the development of voluntary consensus standards for just about everything.

Rich Gottwald, president and CEO, Compressed Gas Association

The CGA has written about 365 standards for any number of compressed gasses, from medical oxygen to carbon dioxide to helium — and more than a few for hydrogen, the first around 1955.

As to working with others, CGA has reciprocal memberships with the hydrogen groups above and others. It didn’t need permission before going public with its campaign.

“Most of those groups are focused on advocating for the increased use of hydrogen, which we think is a great thing,” Rich Gottwald, CGA president and CEO, told me this week. “We’re not advocating for that. What we’re advocating for is if you’re going to use hydrogen, you need to make sure it’s transported, manufactured and used safely.”

Why now?

“As the hydrogen economy is growing and there’s so much focus on it, our members feel that there is a lack of focus on the safety aspect. And that’s truly our bailiwick,” Gottwald said. 

Startups Nikola Corp. and Hyzon Motors, a spinoff of Singapore’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technologies, make regular pronouncements about the planet-saving potential of zero-emission fuel cell technology and their plans to make hydrogen fuel. 

“No one is really talking about safety,” Gottwald said. “The larger established companies like Shell have a lot of safety protocols. A lot of the smaller companies getting into this don’t.”

Thinking the unthinkable

Engineers and scientists know hydrogen is no more hazardous than many fuels used today. But hydrogen has a poor public reputation. Only 12% of Americans believe hydrogen is “very safe” as an energy source, and 92% say it’s important to ensure safety standards are set before scaling hydrogen technologies.

And for good reason. Hydrogen used in fuel cells is highly flammable and can cause fires and explosions if handled improperly. Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. Natural gas and propane also are odorless, but a sulfur-containing odorant is added so a leak can be detected.

“The general public is not the primary audience, though they will be part of this,” Gottwald said of the education campaign. “It’s looking at designers, people who are building fueling stations, companies who are getting involved in this, making sure that they understand it.

“What we do know is that if there is an incident, it will set the whole industry back, whatever you’re looking at hydrogen for. If there’s a tragedy somewhere along the way, it’s going to set everyone back, and so it needs to be at the forefront.

rich gottwald, president and ceo, compressed gas association

“What we do know is that if there is an incident, it will set the whole industry back, whatever you’re looking at hydrogen for. If there’s a tragedy somewhere along the way, it’s going to set everyone back, and so it needs to be at the forefront. It’s really not wagging a finger. It’s educating everybody through the supply chain.”

Hydrogen’s moment

The embrace of hydrogen fuel cells after years in research and development with promises that its use was 10 years away appears to finally be true. With the Cellcentric fuel cell joint venture established by rivals Daimler Truck and Volvo Group, early production of fuel cell trucks by South Korea’s Hyundai, and moves to power fork lifts and yard tractors with hydrogen fuel cells, the timeline has accelerated.

“The climate movement is becoming a reality in many people’s minds,” Gottwald said. “Companies are looking at what’s happening out there, what the next generation wants, and it’s green and it’s sustainable. And hydrogen has a big role in that.”

Watch now: Hydrogen safety educational campaign

Update: TuSimple’s ‘driver out’ pilot 

With just two weeks remaining in 2021, autonomous truck developer TuSimple is playing beat the clock to start its driverless truck pilot in Arizona. Or, maybe it has already started. President and CEO Cheng Lu isn’t saying.

“Driver out for us is not a PR stunt,” Lu told me this week, a subtle dig at a competitor that conducted a driverless pilot on a controlled highway in China earlier this year. “It’s really the road to commercialization. We’re not fully there yet, but if you look at what we’ve been able to achieve in terms of safety requirements, certainly it’s a lot.”

TuSimple (NASDAQ: TSP) plans multiple runs on Interstate 10, most likely starting at its operations center east of Tucson. All Lu would say on the subject is that TuSimple has entered the last phase of validation. The company also published its safety framework that will govern the test. 

In partnership with Navistar, TuSimple is targeting 2024 for a driverless version of the International LT Class 8 truck. It has 6,875 nonbinding reservations from fleets and other partners.

“If we broadcast, ‘Here are the dates that we’re doing it,’ you can imagine the investors, activists, all sorts of people that could be out there,” Lu said.

Cheng Lu, president and CEO, TuSimple Holdings. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Glad tidings

From Texas to Italy, autonomous and electric trucks are part of the holiday season. Sweden’s Volvo Trucks and Swedish-Swiss multinational ABB are providing the truck and charger for a battery-electric version of the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck as it travels — sustainably, of course — from the north to the south of Italy.

Running through Monday as part of the Magic Tour, the first 100% electric Coca-Cola truck tour will cover just over 800 miles.

Santa’s got a brand new bag — a portable electric charger for the Volvo-based Coca-Cola Christmas Truck. (Photo ABB)

As the newest autonomous trucking company to test its trucks in Texas, Embark Trucks came bearing gifts.

Embark completes autonomous gift haul with Depelchin Children’s Center in Texas. (Photos: Embark Trucks)

Best of the rest

Whether or not this photo had a bit of stage management doesn’t matter. All the Nikola doubters who said the startup would never build its greenfield plant in the Arizona desert, let alone produce electric and fuel cell trucks there, get coal in their stockings. The first deliveries went to Total Transportation Services Inc., which has reserved 100 Tre battery-electric and fuel cell trucks.

Preproduction Nikola Tre battery-electric vehicles built in Coolidge, Arizona, line up for a photo op before being sent to customers for real-world testing. (Photo: Nikola Corp.)

Proterra Inc. is building its third battery pack facility in Greer, South Carolina, near its first electric bus plant in Greenville. Cylindrical cells made by LG Energy Solution under a long-term supply agreement announced in August will be delivered to Proterra (NASDAQ: PTRA) factories, including the new $76 million facility in the Palmetto state. The U.S. cell production is a big deal because it allows Proterra battery systems to further meet content requirements under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Volvo Group North America won the 32nd Clean Air Award from the South Coast Air Quality Management District for its multipartner Volvo LIGHTS electric truck and infrastructure project. … The Western States Hydrogen Alliance is rebranding itself as the U.S. Hydrogen Alliance with a goal of raising national awareness. … In the same vein, the Self-Driving Coalition is trying to get people to understand the difference between driver-assist technology and autonomous vehicles. Bottom line: Driver assist technology is not an autonomous vehicle.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. We’ll will return on Jan. 7, 2022, with reporting and insights from CES. Click here to receive Truck Tech via email on Fridays.


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.