Trucks will be the first phase of hydrogen-powered vehicles

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

After years of unmet promises, hydrogen vehicles could finally be catching on. If so, it'll be a convoy of clean semi-trucks — not a bunch of quirky passenger cars — leading the way.

The big picture: We've been hearing about zero-emission, fuel-cell vehicles for decades as the answer to our worries about fossil fuels and climate change. But even now, the economic and practical challenges are still too difficult to overcome — except, perhaps, for commercial truck fleets.

The state of play: Like carmakers, truck manufacturers are under intense regulatory pressure to cut carbon emissions.

  • Tesla is developing an electric semi-truck, but most manufacturers say electric trucks make sense only for shorter routes.
  • Strapping a bulky battery under a long-haul truck is impractical if it takes up space that could otherwise be used for revenue-producing cargo.

Driving the news: Several heavy-duty truck manufacturers this week announced they're rolling out hydrogen-powered big rigs.

  • Hyundai delivered its first fuel cell trucks to customers in Europe, and said it will start selling them in the U.S. and China next year.
  • Toyota and its Hino subsidiary said their first fuel cell truck will arrive in North America in the first half of 2021.
  • Hyzon Motors, with help from an investment announced today by French energy giant Total, expects to deliver about 5,000 fuel cell trucks and buses over the next three years.
  • General Motors is negotiating a partnership with Nikola, a hydrogen truck startup in Arizona.

How it works: Unlike conventional gasoline or diesel cars or trucks, fuel cell vehicles combine hydrogen and oxygen to power an electric motor. The only tailpipe emission is water vapor.

  • One advantage of hydrogen fuel cells over battery electric vehicles is that they can be refueled in less than 10 minutes, vs. 30 minutes to multiple hours for EVs, depending on the power source.

Between the lines: A number of automakers, including Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and General Motors, have tried to market hydrogen fuel-cell cars over the years with little success.

  • They sold only 7,500 worldwide last year, including just 2,089 in the U.S.

The biggest stumbling block to acceptance (aside from the cost of the technology) is finding a place to fill up.

  • There are about 115,000 gas stations in America today.
  • Yet there are just 42 public hydrogen stations, all but one of them in California.

Commercial trucks, on the other hand, don't require a large network of hydrogen fueling stations, especially if they're operating on set routes. An entire truck fleet can be refueled at a designated terminal.

  • Long-haul operators could build a series of hydrogen fueling depots, 400 or 500 miles apart, along heavily traveled routes.
  • Companies like Nikola even hope to produce hydrogen from renewable sources on-site at its fueling stations.

What to watch: Hyundai officials tell Axios they haven't given up on fuel cell passenger cars, and that the hydrogen ecosystem they're developing for trucks will eventually bring down costs and make hydrogen-powered cars feasible, too.

  • The catch: Battery technology, meanwhile, is leaping ahead, making electric cars cheaper and more appealing to consumers.
  • Yes, but: Rapidly increasing demand could pinch battery supply chains in a few years, warns mobility analyst Sam Abuelsamid of Guidehouse Insights.

The bottom line, says Abuelsamid: "I don't think we necessarily have a single solution. We could absolutely have both hydrogen and battery electric vehicles."

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