Truck makers face a technical dilemma: batteries or hydrogen?

Even before the war in Ukraine caused fuel prices to soar, the trucking industry was under intense pressure to shake off its addiction to diesel, one of the major contributors to climate change and urban air pollution. But it still has to figure out which technology will do the job best.

Truck makers are divided into two camps. One faction, which includes Volkswagen’s truck unit Traton, is betting on batteries because they are widely considered the most efficient option. The other camp, which includes Daimler Truck and Volvo, the biggest truck makers, argues that fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity — emitting only water vapor — make more sense because they allow long-distance trucks to refuel quickly.

The choice companies make could be of significant importance, as it helps determine who dominates trucking in the age of electric vehicles and who ends up wasting billions of dollars on the Betamax equivalent of electric truck technology, a potentially fatal mistake. It takes years to design and produce new trucks, so companies will be in the decisions they make now for a decade or more.

“It’s clearly one of the most important technological decisions we have to make,” said Andreas Gorbach, a board member for Daimler Truck, which owns Freightliner in the US and is the world’s largest truck maker.

The risks to the environment and public health are also high. If many truck makers bet incorrectly, it may take longer to clean up trucks than scientists say we have to limit the worst effects of climate change. In the United States, medium and heavy-duty trucks account for 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Trucks tend to spend more time on the road than passenger cars. The war in Ukraine has added urgency to the debate, underscoring the financial and geopolitical risks of dependence on fossil fuels.

While sales of electric cars are exploding, the big truck makers are only beginning to mass-produce zero-emissions vehicles. For example, Daimler Truck began producing an electric version of its heavy-duty Actros truck, with a maximum range of 240 miles, late last year. Tesla revealed a design for a battery-powered semi-truck in 2017, but hasn’t given a firm production date.

Cost will be a determining factor. Unlike car buyers, who might splurge on buying a car because they like the way it looks or the condition it hauls, truck buyers carefully calculate how much an excavator will cost to buy, maintain and refuel.

Battery-powered trucks sell about three times the equivalent of diesel models, although owners may recoup a lot of the cost in savings on fuel. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are likely to be more expensive, perhaps a third more than battery-powered models, according to auto experts. But the fuel and maintenance savings could make it cheaper to own than diesel trucks by 2027, according to Daimler Truck.

“The environmental aspect is very important, but if it doesn’t make financial sense, no one will,” said Paul Gibbs, CEO of Zeem, a company that builds one of the largest electric vehicle charging depots in the country. About a mile and a half from Los Angeles International Airport. Zeem will recharge, service and clean trucks for customers such as hotels, tour operators and delivery companies.

Proponents of hydrogen trucks argue that their preferred half will refuel at the same speed as conventional diesel rigs and weigh less. Fuel cell systems are lighter than batteries, an important consideration for trucking companies looking to increase payload. Fuel cells tend to require fewer raw materials such as lithium, nickel or cobalt, which have increased in prices. (However, they need platinum, the price of which rose after Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia is a major supplier).

The new truck costs $140,000 or more. Daimler’s Gorbach said that owners keen to score as many cargo miles as possible would not want their drivers to spend hours recharging the batteries. “The higher the range, the higher the load, the better for hydrogen,” he said.

But other truck makers argue the batteries are more efficient, and they’re getting better all the time. They noted that extracting hydrogen from water requires huge amounts of energy. Instead of using electricity to produce hydrogen, battery proponents say, why not just let energy directly drive truck engines?

This argument will become stronger as technical advances allow manufacturers to produce batteries that can store more energy per pound and can be recharged in minutes, rather than hours. Andreas Kamil, who is responsible for electrification strategy at Traton, whose truck brands include Scania, MAN and Navistar, said the long-distance truck that can be recharged in half an hour is a few years away.

“The cost advantage is here to stay, and it’s significant,” said Mr. Camille.

The hydrogen camp acknowledges that batteries are more efficient. All the major truck manufacturers plan to use the batteries in smaller trucks, or trucks with shorter mileage. The debate revolves around what makes the most sense for long-distance trucks that travel more than 200 miles a day, the kind that carry heavy loads across the vastness of the United States, Europe or China.

Daimler and Volvo executives say most countries will struggle to produce enough electricity to power their battery-powered truck fleets, arguing that hydrogen is an unlimited source of energy. They envision a world in which countries with plenty of sunlight, like Morocco or Australia, use solar energy to produce hydrogen that they send by ship or pipeline to the rest of the world.

Gerrit Marks, CEO of IVECO, an Italy-based truck maker, noted that Milan suffers blackouts in the summer when people turn on their air conditioners. Just imagine, he said, what will happen when people start connecting electric cars.

“If you also have heavy trucks on the grid for freight, it won’t work,” he said. IVECO makes trucks for Nikola, the struggling US startup that plans to offer hydrogen fuel cell and battery vehicles.

Hydrogen is also the only practical form of zero-emissions energy for energy-hungry construction equipment or municipal vehicles such as fire trucks, Marks said.

Much of the hydrogen produced today is extracted from natural gas, a process that generates more greenhouse gases than burning diesel. So-called green hydrogen produced by solar or hydropower is rare and expensive. Hydrogen enthusiasts say supply will expand rapidly, and price fall, due to demand from steel, chemical and fertilizer producers who are also under pressure to reduce emissions. They will use hydrogen to power smelters and other industrial processes.

“Less than 10 percent of green hydrogen will be directed to road transport,” said Lars Steinqvist, Volvo Executive Board member responsible for technology. “We’re going to kind of rely on demand and infrastructure from other industries.”

Hydrogen has support from a formidable alliance of large companies, H2Accelerate, which includes truck makers Daimler, Volvo and IVECO; Energy companies Royal Dutch Shell, Austrian OMV and TotalEnergies of France; Linde, a German industrial gas producer. Daimler and Volvo, usually strong competitors, have teamed up to develop fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity.

Hydrogen boosters were wrong before. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Daimler and Toyota invested heavily to develop passenger cars running on hydrogen fuel cells. But batteries have fallen in price and improved faster than hydrogen cars. (Daimler Truck and the Mercedes-Benz automobile division have since split into two separate companies. The automobile division no longer sells hydrogen vehicles.)

To be sure, battery-powered trucks will also require significant investments in high-voltage charging stations and other infrastructure. But it will likely be much less expensive to build a shipping network than to create a green hydrogen industry along with the pipelines and tankers needed to transport the gas.

Mr. Camille of Tratton said concerns that the electric grid could not handle a fleet of battery-powered trucks were overstated. He said long-distance trucks tend to charge at night, when demand from other energy users is low. He said big trucks in the US spend a lot of time in the Midwest and Western states with a lot of wind and solar power.

Whoever is right, battery-powered trucks will hit the road first. Daimler doesn’t plan to start mass production of a hydrogen fuel cell truck until after 2025, while at the same time it plans to offer battery power as an option for pickups or larger trucks that travel limited distances. Volvo and Iveco are following similar strategies.

The big risk for these companies is that the affordability and performance of the batteries, which have already exceeded expectations, may make hydrogen trucks obsolete before they hit the market.

“The convenience disadvantages continue to melt, and the cost advantages continue to increase,” Mr. Camille said of battery power.

Evan Ben Contribute to the preparation of reports.

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