Electricity or hydrogen? What will be the future of road transport?
The year is 2029. Auto Trucks – big semi-tractors with even bigger semi-trailers – are speeding along the highways in the rural USA. What’s so special about them? Tractors do not have driver’s cabins. Why? Because they are autonomous vehicles that do not need drivers at all. This is how the future of road transport was imagined in 2017 by the creators of the sci-fi flick entitled “Logan”.
Will driverless trucks really be on the roads in just a few years? It’s really hard to say, although work on them is already underway. It is more certain that the trucks and semi-tractors of the future will be equipped with emission-free drive units, and their “fuel” will be … What exactly: electricity or hydrogen? Let’s try to find an answer to this question.
Why are commercial vehicle manufacturers and the wider logistics industry preparing or already taking the first steps to replace diesel trucks with models equipped with alternative power sources? It basically comes down to two issues: finance and ecology.
“Firstly, oil prices remain high, which means high fuel prices. Secondly, the climate crisis requires radical actions to stop its causes and effects,” explains Christof Thesinga, VP of Marketing and member of the Sustainability board at Coyote Logistics in Europe. “Hence such steps as raising exhaust gas standards (which at some point will no longer be able to be met even by the most modern engines) or the ban on the sale of new passenger cars with combustion engines in the European Union, which will apply from 2035” – he adds.
In other words, road transport will have to become greener and less costly at the same time. Alternative power sources are therefore the only way to meet these two requirements.
Development of electric vehicles
Electric cars became somewhat popular for the first time in the first three decades of the 20th century. In the years 1907-1939, the American company Detroit Electric produced approx. 13 thousand electric cars. Of course, there would be no electric cars at all if it wasn’t for the invention of the lead-acid battery by Gaston Planté in 1859, which was perfected twenty years later by Camille Faure (today, lithium-ion batteries are mostly assembled in EVs, but other types like lithium-iron-phospathe batteries are also used). In 1881, Pierre Gustave Trouve presented the first (still three-wheeled) road electric vehicle. In the virgin years of the development of the automotive industry, electric cars appeared as a serious alternative to cars with internal combustion engines. Suffice it to say that La Jamais Contente, the first car to break the 100 km/h barrier, had an electric drive. From the late 1930s until the mid-1990s (when General Motors introduced the experimental EV1 model), electric cars were a rather exotic curiosity (for example, the Henley Kilowatt produced in the late 1950s, based on the Renault Dauphine, found as many as … 47 buyers) and lost the competition to cars with combustion engines in terms of versatility, range and price.
Today the situation is completely different. Recent years have been a real boom for electric cars (which were previously pioneered by hybrid cars with the revolutionary Toyota Prius at the forefront). Every automotive company already has EV models in its offer, from small city cars, through crossovers and SUVs, to sports cars. Three years ago, Tesla celebrated the production of its millionth electric model, and in January this year, the share of “electrics” in the global market for new cars was already 10%. And it’s constantly growing.
Electric trucks: advantages and disadvantages
At a time when electric cars were a tiny niche market, electric utility vehicles such as small battery trolleys for carrying luggage in train stations or postal vans fared a little better. In Great Britain, electric milk floats were extremely popular in the second half of the 20th century. Thanks to these vehicles in 1967, there were supposed to be more electric vehicles on British roads than in the rest of the world combined.
The rapid development of electromobility in recent years has not spared commercial vehicles. EV vans, used e.g. by courier companies, are already a common sight on city streets. The issue of electric trucks is a bit more complex, especially in the context of long-range transport.
“The first electric semi-tractor units are already produced by Tesla, Volvo, Freightliner and BYD from China, and other makes are preparing to launch their production as well. Companies such as Scania, DAF or Volta Trucks offer electric box trucks or those that can be the basis for specialist vehicles, e.g. garbage trucks,” explains Christof Thesinga.
“Without any discussion, the biggest advantage of electric trucks is that they are zero emission vehicles. However, it will be only possible to call them 100% green when the electricity for charging the batteries is generated in a clean way (from renewable sources or in a nuclear power plant). According to Volvo research, the environmental impact of an electric truck, as long as it is fully powered by electricity from renewable sources, will be reduced compared to its diesel counterpart after driving 100,000 kilometers,” explains Christof Thesinga. “The advantage of electric trucks is also that they are much quieter than models with a combustion engine. Their usage contributes not only to the reduction of exhaust fumes emitted into the atmosphere, but also to the reduction of noise pollution, which is particularly important in large urban areas,” adds Thesinga.
Today, the problem when buying electric trucks is still their price – they are much more expensive than the diesel versions. However, according to the PwC report, already in 2030 electric trucks may be about 30% cheaper than models with a traditional drive, if the total costs of purchase and operation are taken into account. In the future, therefore, they will prove to be a much more economically rational choice.
Engineers developing electric trucks still face challenges that must be overcome in order for these vehicles to reach their full potential. First of all, the range that e-trucks can cover on a single charge is still a problem. Although it is getting longer, it is still shorter than diesel trucks and fuel cell-powered models. The Mercedes-Benz eActros Long Haul prototype can cover 500 km on a single charge. The Volvo FH Electric, which is now possible to buy, will cover a distance of 300 km on full batteries. For comparison: a semi-tractor unit with a diesel engine will go several times longer on one full tank.
Secondly, the charging time of the batteries is still longer than the time needed to fill the tank with diesel (or hydrogen in the case of FCEV trucks), despite the ongoing development in this area (for example, the batteries of the Mercedes eActros can be charged from 20% to 80% below 30 minutes). The charging infrastructure is already well developed in cities, but still not enough for electric trucks to cover long lanes. In addition, there are still not enough charging stations dedicated only to trucks, so that they do not have to share them with passenger cars or vans.
Thirdly, the weight of lithium-ion batteries is still an issue. An electric semi-tractor is heavier than its counterparts with a traditional and hydrogen drive, which limits the load capacity of the entire tractor-trailer set, whose total weight must not exceed 40 tons.
Another challenge concerns the storage and disposal of used batteries in such a way that it is done with the least possible harm to the environment. Of course, the most desirable solution is to recycle the components of the battery as much as possible. The European Union is working on a regulation that will oblige manufacturers of electric vehicles to collect used batteries and recycle them in order to use the obtained materials to produce new batteries.
Hydrogen powered trucks
It may seem that we have been hearing about hydrogen as a power source for motor vehicles for only a few years, but this is a wrong impression. The hydrogen-powered engine was developed at the beginning of the 19th century, and in 1860 a Belgian named Ettienne Lenoir presented the three-wheeled Hippomobile. It was a vehicle powered by a single-cylinder, two-stroke combustion engine, and the hydrogen, which was its fuel, came from the electrolysis of water. Lenoir managed to sell over 300 hippomobiles. In the 1930s, the first hydrogen-powered trucks appeared. They were developed by the Norwegian company Norsk Hydro. The source of propulsion was again an internal combustion engine, but adapted to burn hydrogen, not gasoline.
Nowadays, when we talk about hydrogen-powered vehicles, we no longer mean hydrogen replacing liquid fuel in internal combustion engines. Since the mid-1950s, the continuous development of fuel cells since the beginning of the 21st century brought a significant acceleration of work on this alternative source of power. Currently, a “hydrogen truck” is a vehicle with an electric motor, in which the power source is fuel cells, also referred to as hydrogen cells.
How do fuel cells work?
Fuel cells consist of two electrodes: negative (anode) and positive (cathode) and a catalyst, which is in the form of a proton exchange membrane. Electricity is generated in them as a result of the phenomenon of reverse electrolysis. In a simplified way, this process can be described as follows: hydrogen is supplied to the anode, which – oxidized in a reaction with a catalyst – breaks down into protons and electrons. The protons pass through the membrane to the cathode, where oxygen is supplied. The cathode is also covered with a catalyst, so the oxygen reacts with it and turns into anions. These combine with hydrogen protons to form water vapor. Where is the electricity in all this? The electrons that have not passed through the membrane move to the external circuit – electricity is generated that drives the truck’s electric motor. Hydrogen is stored in a tank at 350 or 700 bar due to its low density. Therefore, the safe and effective storage and transport of this gas is one of the greatest challenges faced by the hydrogen automotive industry today.
Fuel cell trucks: advantages and disadvantages
As in the case of electric vehicles, the biggest advantage of trucks powered by hydrogen cells is that they do not emit any exhaust gases into the atmosphere, only water vapor. A more complex issue is how the hydrogen is produced, which will later be refueled into the truck to power the fuel cells.
“About 95% of the hydrogen produced in the world is the so-called gray hydrogen. It is produced in the natural gas reforming process. The by-product of this process is carbon dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere. There is technology to capture and store or process CO2 (then we are talking about the production of blue hydrogen), but it is extremely expensive. Gray hydrogen means that although fuel cells themselves are a ”clean” power source, because vehicles equipped with them emit only water vapor, the production of most of the hydrogen that powers them still has a negative impact on the environment. As in the case of EVs – they do not emit exhaust fumes, but electricity can be produced in ”dirty” coal-fired power plants,” explains Christof Thesinga.
Trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells – like their electric counterparts – are also very quiet.
The hydrogen tank and fuel cells that power the electric motor take up less space and weigh less than batteries in electric trucks. This means hydrogen trucks have the most payload compared to their electric counterparts. The time of refueling with hydrogen is also shorter than charging the batteries: it takes several minutes, while fully charging the battery is still a matter of hours.
Fuel cell trucks also have a longer range compared to the EVs. The Qualtron semi-tractor manufactured in Germany can cover a distance of 1,500 km on a single “fuelling” with hydrogen. As already mentioned: the prototype Mercedes-Benz eActros will cover only a third of this distance on a single battery charge.
Currently, the biggest challenge related to the effective use of FCEV trucks in the transport of goods is the underdeveloped infrastructure. “In cities, we can easily find EV charging stations, which can also be used by commercial vehicles. However, the hydrogen refueling infrastructure still requires significant expansion, especially for longer routes, if we are thinking about using FCEV trucks for long-distance transport of goods. As for now, the costs of building a hydrogen refueling station and tanks for its storage still significantly exceed the costs of installing an EV charging station,” explains Christof Thesinga from Coyote Logistics.
And then there’s the question of price: FCEV trucks are obviously much more expensive than their diesel counterparts, but also than EVs.
EV or FCEV? What will be the future of road transport?
Simply step onto the street of any large city in Europe and you see that vehicles powered by alternative energy sources are becoming part of our everyday life faster and faster. Of course, we are still talking mainly about passenger cars, but electric vans used by courier companies or hydrogen cell-powered city buses prove that also commercial vehicles can become elements of the green revolution in the automotive industry. In 2022, less than 1.7 thousand new electric trucks were registered across the EU. There is no doubt that this number will only grow, especially since the EU strategy for sustainable mobility assumes that by 2030, 80,000 emission-free trucks will be on EU roads.
“Shippers will want to lower their carbon footprint. Therefore, they will use the services of those carriers that have a zero-emission fleet. This will increase the sales of EV or FCEV trucks”, explains Christof Thesinga.
Today, however, it is still too early to clearly indicate whether EVs or FCEVs will dominate truck transport in the near future, but we can try to tell a possible way of development.
“From today’s perspective, we can say that the coming years will still be a period when heavy duty vehicles will be powered mostly by diesel engines, with biodiesel replacing diesel. In the future, however, the development of EV and FCEV trucks will continue. Over time, they will start to displace biodiesel models, which will be facilitated by increasingly stringent emission standards or regulations favoring vehicles with alternative engines, Christof Thesinga points out.
Manufacturers of electric and fuel cell-powered trucks still face numerous challenges. In the case of EVs, it is necessary to increase the range that can be covered on a single charge, but also the weight and size of the batteries (while maintaining their efficiency), as well as speeding up the charging time. As for FCEV trucks, their producers will have to work on making the tanks safer (to keep the risk of the tank leaking, which can cause an explosion when hydrogen mixes with oxygen in the air, to an absolute minimum). For the success of hydrogen cell-powered trucks, the expansion of the refueling infrastructure will be crucial, which – compared to the network of EV chargers – is still in its infancy. The purchase price must be competitive compared to trucks with traditional engines. However, it can be assumed that the costs of purchasing and operating EV and FCEV trucks will decrease as both types will gain popularity.
“Trying to predict the development of EV and FCEV trucks, one can be tempted to say that there will be a place for both types in road transport. Due to the longer range and faster refueling, models with fuel cells can be used as semi-tractors for long haul. Electric models today seem to be ideal as delivery vehicles in cities, where charging stations are easy to find, so the shorter range is not such a problem. Moreover, since delivery vehicles start and end their daily routes in the same place, i.e. at the courier center, they can be charged there after returning from the route. But the dynamic development of EVs and FCEVs in the coming years may make these predictions obsolete. In my opinion, in the future both EVs and FCEVs will function side by side on the market, meeting the specific expectations of different users, just like, for example, the development of automatic transmissions which did not mean replacing manual transmissions” – sums up Christof Thesinga, VP of Marketing at Coyote Logistics.
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