Musings on the Motoring World

Thanks to trucks, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will overtake Tesla

The turn of the millennium was a time of wide-eyed optimism. Not only did we survived the great “extinction event” that was Y2K, but the future was unfurling before our eyes. Wireless global communication was connecting the world, a new human space habitat lifted our eyes to the heavens, and you could carry 1000 songs in your pocket. Soon enough we would be zipping around in mobile pods powered a hydrogen fuel cell.

The future went electric

Back then, suggesting that batteries will power the cars of the future was incredulous. General Motors had just scrapped its EV1 experimental electric cars and debut hydrogen fuel cell concepts. At the dawn of the 2000s, who would want a battery-powered car? My IBM laptop of the era didn’t even have enough battery to play Titanic.

Speaking of Titanic, what a movie that was? I don’t think they would make a movie as long as that ever again. And this Leonardo DiCaprio fellow will never amount to much than a flight of fancy, like electric cars. Hydrogen fuel cell cars will change everything, just you wait!  

What do you mean three-hour-long movies are now the norm? And DiCaprio is still around? Wait, he is an A-lister now? And he drives electric cars and funds an electric car racing team?

A fallen dream

Much to the chagrin of my 2000s self, hydrogen fuel cell cars are still a novelty. Only Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai have commercially available hydrogen fuel cell models. All sold to an insignificant number of customers who live in tiny affluent enclaves in the world.

Meanwhile, the most prominent proponent of the hydrogen fuel cell, the Nikola Corporation, stands accused of being an elaborate fraud.

With public conversation and corporate resources being focused on electric cars, it looks as though that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are just another technological dead end in transportation. Just like the hydrogen-buoyant giant Zeppelins and the parachute suite of the century before.  

Step away from bombastic headlines of electric cars leaving supercars in the dust or Tesla’s incredulous valuation, and you’d find a different story. One where the trucking industry’s major players are coming together to develop and deploy hydrogen fuel cell haulers.

Hydrogen haulers

In April, Toyota, makers of the Mirai, one of the world’s first commercially available hydrogen fuel cell car, announced a partnership with its subsidiary, Hino Motors, to develop “heavy-duty fuel cell trucks”. More recently, the two companies brought its North American operations into the partnership to develop a full-sized “Class 8” rig. Or a full-size semi-truck for non-Americans.

Korean rival automaker, Hyundai, which produces the hydrogen fuel cell Nexo SUV, delivered its first 10 units of its Xcient fuel cell trucks to Switzerland in July. And the company hopes to deliver 50 this year, with a total of 1600 units finding buyers by 2025.     

Over in Europe, Daimler Truck and Volvo Group, announced a joint venture in April to unify its “fuel cell activities”. In September, Daimler unveiled its GenH2 fuel cell truck concept that uses liquid hydrogen to achieve a range of “up to 1000km”. According to Daimler, customer trials will start in 2023, with series production to follow in the second half of the decade.

This flurry of activity is baffling with the ongoing fallout of Nikola. Back in September, Hindenburg Research, a short-selling firm, accused the company’s founder, Trevor Milton of orchestrating an “intricate fraud”. Hindenburg Research believed that Nikola’s exaggerated the claims of it hydrogen fuel cell truck’s performance, and its promotional clip of a running prototype was false.

The accusations had initially put Nikola’s talks for a lucrative partnership with General Motors on the backfoot. Though, despite the scandal and the forced departure of its founder, General Motors have recently confirmed that it is still pushing ahead for a partnership.

According to General Motors, it wants a piece of Nikola’s hydrogen and electric powertrain technologies. In exchange, General Motors would build the start-up’s hydrogen fuel cell pick-up, the Badger.

Fool’s gold

The thing is, while these partnerships are an encouraging sign, it isn’t proof of success just yet. Toyota did partner itself with Tesla in 2010; a partnership that bore little fruit. The Japanese carmaker bought a three per cent share of the American trailblazer, only to divest it in 2017.

Pundits believed a culture clash between the Japanese’s conservative approach and the American company’s risk-taking moves, eventually ended the partnership. The partnership only resulted in an all-electric version of its popular RAV4 SUV, while the Japanese giant would continue its hydrogen fuel cell development.

Whether Toyota’s decision to continue investing in hydrogen was a point of contention for Tesla’s business model is uncertain. Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, is a huge critic of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, labelling it as “fool cells”.

Musk also called Nikola’s hydrogen fuel cell trucks as “mind-bogglingly stupid”. Understandable, considering that Nikola’s creations were in direct competition with his all-electric Tesla Semi.

Semi unrealised

Unveiled as a concept in 2017, Tesla bookmarked a 2021 production date for the Semi. While the Semi has attracted considerable press attention and corporate bookings, many analysts are apprehensive of the truck’s operating potential and costs.

According to estimates, the number of batteries required to deliver its 800km range and haulage capacity was unrealistic. Analysts estimate that the capital cost of the Semi will be double that of an equivalent diesel-powered truck. Not only that, but the weight of the batteries alone would severely limit the Semi’s haulage capacity.

Question marks also hang over its battery longevity and replacement costs, and not to mention charging times. While Tesla’s early adopters were willing to take the leap of faith in future depreciation, businesses cannot afford such wanton disregard for the longevity of its assets.

Most industry experts agree that electric trucks work for short to medium trips. As a “last mile” delivery apparatus, these trucks wouldn’t have to contend with huge batteries and charging times. But for long-distance transportation, battery-electric powertrains aren’t feasible with its limited range and cargo capacity.

Hauling up the hydrogen economy

A hydrogen fuel cell’s headlining convenience of being as quick and easy to refuel is exactly what transportation companies are looking for. Less downtime in topping up its tanks means lower operating costs.

Without the need for lugging heavy metal batteries, these trucks would be able to haul more. And with less of the truck’s valued tied to a depreciating component, it would also result in lower operating costs. This means a better profit margin per trip, and that is where the buck stops.

But why is this development in hydrogen fuel cell trucks so important? Well if you want to get your hydrogen infrastructure going, you will need a hydrogen economy to support it. And what better incentive to foster such an economy than an essential service.

Private car owners are a fickle bunch. Hard to predict and convince, which makes them an unstable base to build a long-term infrastructure. By comparison, trucking routes and volumes on the other hand is far easier to predict.

As is so often the case, monetary considerations easily trump ideology. By turning trucking companies into the vanguard of the formation of a practical hydrogen infrastructure, businesses would lay the foundations for hydrogen fuel cell cars to follow.

So, don’t bet on an all-electric future just yet. Electric cars are surging ahead in popularity at the moment. But slow and steady usually wins in the long run. And boring trucks are hauling us into the future we dreamt of in the good old 2000s.