Kenworth, Toyota, UPS and other major trucking and transport names have launched high-profile hydrogen fuel cell projects in recent weeks. Buzzy start-ups are pledging ambitious rollouts.
But despite the pedigrees of the companies and the millions of dollars going into development and testing, many industry experts are skeptical about the business case for fuel cell technology — especially for large, long-haul vehicles.
“We’re all looking at the same technologies,” said Steve Gilligan, vice president of product and vocational marketing for Navistar’s North American business unit. “It’s a very uncertain road right now. It’s not certain in 10 years where we’ll be.”
Fuel cell vehicles — also known as FCVs — use hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. There’s no combustion, and the only tailpipe emissions are heat and water.
At the moment, most hydrogen is created using fossil fuels, which dulls some of its environmental luster. But when hydrogen is made using renewable energy, it’s an extremely clean fuel.
Potential applications vary, according to Peter Devlin, a project manager with the fuel cell technologies office at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Think forklifts in warehouses, he said. Or ground support vehicles, like the ones that FedEx has tested at Memphis International Airport since 2015. Even unmanned aerial drones could be equipped with fuel cells — the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is testing versions that Devlin said may have freight-bearing potential.
“We’re testing a lot of prototypes with automakers, and they can stand up to many conditions,” Devlin said. “All these different applications help build a supply base, which is what is needed to get the cost of the technology down.”
California, with its strict environmental regulations and heavy pollution, especially at its large ports, has become ground zero for testing the technology.
Last week, shipping giant UPS said it was building the world’s first hydrogen-electric Class 6 delivery truck. The vehicle, developed as part of a $10-million federal Department of Energy program, is the first of 17 hydrogen fuel cell vans the parcel delivery giant will deploy in California by the end of 2018.
Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s second-largest automaker and owner of the Hino truck brand, is pushing hard into FCV initiatives, already selling Mirai passenger cars and developing forklifts, transit buses and big rigs.
“Hydrogen technology maintains a steady increase of market share and is potentially poised to expand into new areas, like ports,” said Craig Scott, who heads Toyota’s U.S. advanced technologies group.
But it's one thing to debut a passenger car in an innovation-friendly environment like California and another to build a fuel cell Class 8 truck. Such an endeavor requires creative engineering, capital reserves in a mature market and the ability to persuade drivers to break long-held habits.
Toyota has accepted the challenge. Last month, the automaker opened the blinds on its secret “Project Portal” venture, which had a tiny cabal of experts toiling since September on an 80,000-pound Class 8 truck-and-trailer combo powered by a hydrogen fuel cell system.
Live-testing of a short-haul, zero-emission drayage version of the truck is about to begin at the Los Angeles-Long Beach ports.
Truck builder Kenworth launched its fuel cell big-rig program last week with a Class 8 drayage truck that will be tested at the California port complex by year end.
“We’re working on a fuel cell truck now so we can be ready in the event that it’s one of the winning technologies,” said Brian Lindgren, Kenworth’s research and development director.
US Hybrid, a manufacturer of battery and fuel cell propulsion systems, is joining the squadron, saying this week that it developed its own FCe 80 fuel cell engine and plugged it into a tractor based on a Navistar International ProStar day cab.
Then there’s Salt Lake City start-up Nikola Motor Co., which not only plans to build its Nikola One hydrogen fuel cell electric semi-truck but also intends to construct a nationwide network of 364 hydrogen fueling stations. The system — similar to Tesla Motors’ web of Supercharger stations — will begin opening in late 2019, Nikola Chief Executive Trevor Milton said in December.
Different approaches to introducing heavy duty FCVs to market — such as Nikola’s plan to include fuel in its leasing plans — leave some experts dubious.
“The way new start-ups are trying to position this, it’s a different business model than many of us are in, so it’ll be interesting to see if that’ll take off,” said Kary Schaefer, general manager of marketing and strategy for Daimler Trucks North America.
These initiatives don’t foreshadow an imminent transformation of the trucking industry.
Several of the major manufacturers said they’re only exploring the technology as a way to hedge their bets as competitors investigate various batteries, gases, biofuels and hybrid solutions to power their trucks.
“There is a herd mentality that we all have to avoid — we have to make decisions for our own companies,” Gilligan said. “What works for one customer may not work for another.”
Some of the advanced technology projects risk offering answers to questions that haven’t been asked, said Bill Kahn, engineering manager of advanced concepts at Peterbilt Motors Co., a sibling brand to Kenworth.
“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it makes sense,” Kahn said.
The technology also has to pass the economic test. Financial measures — such as upfront costs, insurance premiums, fuel cost per year, usable life and more — need to stack up favorably against the current baseline.
“For over-the-road trucks, it’s diesel, so that’s the constant an alternative has to be measured against,” Gilligan said. “Your best friend in these scenarios is probably an accountant with a skeptical viewpoint, because people have taken some liberties in projecting how those alternatives will be.”
But he stressed that uncertainty now isn’t a death knell for infinity.
“If it’s not cost-effective today, it doesn’t mean it won’t ever be — it’ll take time for the technology to mature,” Gilligan said. “When one company steps out and tries something, explores it, it causes others to explore it as well, and that’s good for the industry.”
The other hitch is infrastructure.
“Until you’ve got the infrastructure out there to support the range you want to travel, it’s going to be a challenge,” Kahn said.
But that’s not insurmountable. Every state has hydrogen production pipelines that could likely be expanded to accommodate vehicle fueling, said Joel Rinebold, director of energy initiatives for the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology Inc.