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Battery, hydrogen, eHighway: Powering the truck of the future

Mar 23, 2021

Whether a small van or a 40-ton truck – the decarbonization of transport doesn’t stop at commercial vehicles. But it’s an open question as to what kinds of energy will power them. From batteries to hydrogen to fuels from sustainable sources, everything is possible, given the wide range of vehicles in the truck segment: long-term, fossil fuels are set to be a thing of the past.

One glance at the new models announced for 2021 shows that, when it comes to cars, the drivetrain switch is already fully in gear. From the mini to the luxury sedan – hybrid cars and fully-electric vehicles now have a foothold in practically every segment. There are also a number of hydrogen-powered models. It’s a different situation for heavy commercial vehicles, where fossil fuels are still the dominant source of energy. And yet, despite technological advancements and significant greenhouse gas savings in the past decades, around five per cent of all CO2 emissions in Europe are attributable to trucks, making them a key lever in achieving the UN climate goals. To apply this lever, the truck industry is already working at top speed on emissions-free alternatives. Whether fuel cell, giant batteries, eHighways, fast megawatt charging or switching to sustainable fuels – the range of technological possibilities is vast. But time is not on their side: By 2025, the manufacturers need to reduce CO2 emissions from their fleet of new vehicles on average by 15 per cent compared with 2019/20, and by 2030 by fully 30 per cent. A mix of different powertrain technologies could help them achieve this.


It all comes down to what it’s used for

Accordingly, when it comes to the shift in mobility for commercial vehicles, a distinction between two scenarios is emerging: short-haul, primarily encompassing distribution transport in cities, and long-haul, which is mainly concerned with long-distance routes via motorway. For short-haul, the first solutions are already on the market, as e-vans and light electric commercial vehicles. In the next few years their numbers are set to increase dramatically, since battery electric powertrains are already a well-proven solution. But other types of powertrain could follow soon too.

For long-haul, conversely, the situation looks rather different. Here, the commercial electric vehicle offering is not as well-developed as for short-haul. The reason for this is that batteries are heavy, a fact which impacts more strongly with increasing size and leads to higher energy consumption. For long-haul, therefore, electric trucks need suitable charging options, which they can drive to for their prescribed breaks and use to “refuel”. This charging infrastructure is currently still in preparation, and set to come on-stream in the second half of the decade, together with the corresponding electric trucks. The same also goes for hydrogen trucks, which are able to handle similar ranges to diesel thanks to the high energy density of hydrogen.

Commercial vehicle manufacturers such as MAN are already mass-producing light electric trucks. © MAN

The hydrogen truck moonshot

Some commercial vehicle manufacturers, like Daimler, Hyundai, Honda and Iveco, are therefore looking to help the fuel cell to break through. Along with suppliers, logistics companies and energy suppliers, they have come together in the EU project “H2Haul”. This grouping of 62 companies wants to ensure a sustainable push in expanding the infrastructure through their collective efforts, and to put a large number of H2 trucks on the road in the years ahead: a powertrain shift which, according to Daimler Trucks CEO Martin Daum, is nothing short of a “moonshot”. Daimler is looking to start its hydrogen journey with the GenH2 truck, moving into customer trials as early as 2023. In the second half of the decade, the H2 trucks will then be rolling on our roads as series-produced vehicles, capable of covering around 1,000 kilometers on a full tank. By 2030, Daimler is looking to achieve a 15 per cent market share with the hydrogen truck. To that end, the company is to enter into a joint venture with the Swedish manufacturer Volvo this year.

Another manufacturer of H2 commercial vehicles fitted with a fuel cell is Toyota. Together with the American truck-maker Kenworth, the Japanese company is already manufacturing the third generation of its fuel cell electric truck, even if only in short production runs. Hyundai is similarly looking to get into the race, and is testing fuel cell trucks in Switzerland. Commercial vehicle manufacturer MAN is even working on running a combustion engine on hydrogen, which would expand the potential applications of this climate-friendly power source. So the competition is not sleeping.

With the GenH2 Truck, Daimler presents its concept for a long-distance hydrogen vehicle for flexible and challenging operations in terms of routes, distances and load capacity. © Daimler

Megawatt-charging for long-haul

No sleeping, either, when it comes to developing heavy electric trucks. According to CAM, Tesla could be launching its “Semi” electric truck on the market this year, achieving ranges of up to 1,000 kilometers. Orders are already reportedly in from the US supermarket chain Walmart, in contrast to the Tesla competitor Nikola. The Arizona-based start-up specializes in electric trucks and is looking to take on the Californians and Elon Musk in the commercial vehicle segment. However, Nikola’s rapid ascent recently faltered somewhat, as a planned cooperation with General Motors unexpectedly came to nothing.  The start-up is now planning to get together with the Italian commercial vehicle manufacturer Iveco, where the battery electric version of the Tre is set to roll off the conveyor belt at its Ulm plant from the end of 2021. Further start-ups in the electric truck market include Lion and Xos.

But the race for the electric truck of the future also features some established manufacturers at its head, including Volvo, Daimler and the Volkswagen subsidiary Traton, which owns the truck manufacturers MAN and Scania. They already have various e-trucks in the pipeline, such as the eActros , a heavy distribution truck from Daimler which is being series-manufactured from 2021.  But that’s not all: To ensure the necessary charging infrastructure for long-haul, the truck manufacturers mentioned above have come together in a consortium of some 16 companies and research establishments, under the auspices of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). The aim of the consortium is to develop a charging infrastructure that enables trucks to charge their batteries with several megawatts, so they can cover even long-haul routes without a problem, simply with short intermediate stops. To that end, the consortium is building a test route on the A2 motorway between Berlin and the Ruhrgebiet area. 

The Tesla Semi on the road with its battery electric drive. © Tesla

Another approach to help electric trucks achieve greater range is something known as eHighways. In this concept, part sections of motorway are fitted with overhead lines on the slow lane, allowing trucks to draw electricity just like trams do. The concept is already being tested on the A5 and the A1 (on very short sections, using a few vehicles). However, it does not look as if the concept will break through to become a mass application in the near future, which is why the industry is currently focusing more on developing a megawatt and hydrogen infrastructure. With that in place, nothing will stand in the way of emissions-free commercial vehicle traffic for short- and long-haul in future.

(Stage photo: © Nikola Motors)

With the eHighway, Siemens aims to combine the efficiency of electrified rail lines with the flexibility of trucks. © Siemens Mobility Services

The IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: the Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries come together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.