Daimler, which has worked on hydrogen technology for decades, is developing a fuel-cell semi with range of up to 600 miles (1000 kilometers) per fueling and next-generation battery trucks amid intensifying competition to curb diesel and carbon exhaust from heavy-duty vehicles.
The German auto giant’s truck unit showed off the Mercedes-Benz GenH2, a concept truck designed for long haul runs that will be tested by customers in 2023, at an event in Berlin Tuesday outlining steps it’s taking to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Volume production of GenH2s starts in the second half of the 2020s. The company also debuted its Mercedes-Benz eActros LongHaul, a battery-powered truck for short- and medium-range routes goes about 300 miles (500 kilometers) between charges. eActros production starts in 2024.
Both trucks share Daimler’s new ePowetrain modular platform to help hold costs down. They’ll be available initially in Europe, though versions for North America and Japan will arrive around the same time, the company said.
The combination of hydrogen and battery vehicles “enables us to offer our customers the best vehicle options, depending on the application,” Daimler Chairman Martin Daum said at the event. “Battery power will be rather used for lower cargo weights and for shorter distances. Fuel-cell power will tend to be the preferred option for heavier loads and longer distances.”
The company’s strategy mirrors that of Nikola Corp., the upstart hydrogen truck company that similarly hopes to be a leader in heavy-duty vehicles powered by fuel cells as well as batteries. Led by brash founder Trevor Milton, newly public Nikola has racked up thousands of orders for its futuristic vehicles, led by an 800-truck order from beermaker Anheuser-Busch, and lined up an array of industrial partnerships including General Motors
Both the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department are said to have begun reviews of Nikola as a result of the report. (The company says it proactively sought the SEC’s involvement in the matter.) Neither agency will confirm whether such a review is happening.
Hydrogen fuel cells, which make electricity on demand with only water as a byproduct, have been touted as a clean vehicle option for decades, though high costs, durability and a lack of hydrogen fuel stations have limited their appeal relative to battery electric models. And while Elon Musk has harshly criticized hydrogen “fool cells” for years, grousing about their inefficiency relative to batteries, companies including Hyundai Motor, Toyota, engine maker Cummins
Along with lack of tailpipe pollution, the appeal is that hydrogen powertrains are considerably lighter than the multi-ton battery packs that will be needed for long-range trucking, such as that promised by Musk with the Tesla Semi. Additional weight reduces the amount of payload a truck can carry, which could make battery trucks unappealing for routes of 500 miles or more. Similarly, the time needed to fuel a hydrogen truck is comparable to diesel-powered models, while long-range battery trucks may take two to three times as long to be fully recharged.
A unique twist with Daimler’s GenH2 truck is that the system relies on liquid hydrogen, rather than highly compressed hydrogen gas, the current standard. The benefit is that liquid hydrogen is more energy dense and uses tanks that are much lighter than those required for gaseous fuel, Daimler said. “This gives the trucks a larger cargo space and higher payload weight,” while also improving range, it said.
Daimler’s clean-truck initiative comes days after it settled a diesel emissions case in California related to the use of illegal software designed to fool exhaust control equipment. The company is paying California $285.6 million in fines and will fix the affected vehicles at no cost to their owners.