The demand for road freight continues to surge almost exponentially, driven largely by the phenomenal growth of e-commerce.
At the same time, the threats associated with climate change have lead many nations to commit to, or in some cases at least pay lip service to, zero net carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050.
At the moment, 2050 may seem to be a long way off but the time required to develop the technologies necessary to achieve that vital goal are not created or developed over night, and we are at a virtual crossroads on how road transport and its suppliers can best address the industry’s needs for the next 30 years and beyond.
Diesel fuel remains the energy source of choice despite additional pressure being applied to address its exhaust emissions.
There is no date yet set for the introduction of the next level of emission standards and Euro 7 isn’t expected until late in this decade ,and Australia is yet to mandate even Euro 6 despite many of the current trucks on sale here already meeting the stricter standard.
Under Euro 7 the challenge for vehicle manufacturers and freight operators will be that the permitted levels of carbon dioxide and oxides of nitrogen (NOX) will be so low that even a conventional diesel-electric hybrid with a multi-speed transmission will not be able to meet them.
“The big driver isn’t Euro 7, it’s actually the global cross-industry push to reach net zero CO² by 2050,” says Romesh Rodrigo, Daimler Truck and Bus Australia Senior Manager of Homologation, Vehicle Processing and Regulatory Affairs — a big title for what will become increasingly a big job. “Daimler has committed to offer only new trucks and buses that are CO² neutral for Europe, North America and Japan by 2039.” Current technology extends across electric trucks which are already being proven as viable for shorter radius trips.
The acknowledged challenges extend to the weight of the batteries at the sacrifice of payload as well as the time required to recharge those batteries, regardless of the source of the electricity used.
However, overcoming these challenges through battery technology is evolving at a rapid rate in a similar manner to mobile phones following their popularisation during the 1990s. Less than a decade ago, concepts such as autonomous trucks and electric powered light commercial trucks were viewed by many as something from a sci-fi movie.
While not yet mainstream those technologies are being taken up and the next disrupter currently appears to be the electric trucks powered by Hydrogen Fuel Cells (HFC). It isn’t a circumstance of one technology competing with the other; more the case of complementing each other.
For applications operating for around 150-300 kilometres per shift Battery Electric Vehicles makes a lot of sense. Regional and long haul will be more suited to HFC due to longer operating ranges, quicker fuelling times and higher payloads without the weight of large storage batteries.
Internationally, the high profile players in the electric and hydrogen fuel cell space have been Tesla and Nikola, neither of which appears to have yet sold a single practical vehicle.
Both companies have been headed by flamboyant entrepreneurs although Trevor Milton was forced to resign from his own Nikola board and in late July was charged with multiple counts of fraud and released on $100m bail, and over at Tesla Elon Musk continues to be, well, Elon Musk.
Musk announced at the end of July yet another delay in the debut of Tesla’s electric Class 8 prime mover to sometime in 2022, marking at least the third time the production of the Tesla Semi has been pushed back since it was unveiled with much hype in 2017. It’s not just the start ups such as Nikola and Tesla, or Hyzon and Volta or even the Australian based SEA Electric that have entered this space.
Mainstream OEMs including Volvo, Daimler and Kenworth have been quietly developing electric trucks and a number are already available overseas with the Fuso eCanter now on sale here and the first Volvo electric truck was recently delivered to Linfox in Australia. Hyzon have announced local trials of HFC powered trucks in 2022.
What we once called oil companies are transitioning themselves to become “energy providers” and are likely to become players in the provision of the necessary infrastructure such as fast charging stations for EVs and hydrogen refuelling stations.
It is anticipated replenishing the hydrogen on a HFC truck will take only a little longer than refuelling an equivalent diesel.
It is estimated that the EV charging station market in the US will be worth in excess of $100 billion by 2028. Diesel manufacturer Cummins has taken a majority shareholding in Canadian fuel cell developer Hydrogenics and has also formed a new partnership with NPROXX, which is a hydrogen storage system company from the Netherlands.
Tom Linebarger, the CEO of Cummins, recently said the organisation is aiming to make a dramatic shift from its traditional diesel engines and by 2050, Cummins wants to have hydrogen fuel cell powertrains.
“From an energy density point of view, weight density, new batteries are not as good as hydrogen tanks are,” Linebarger said. “So if you’ve got a truck that’s loaded up with weight, you’re going to be better off with a lighter weight fuel than batteries.”
Cummins has signed a memorandum of understanding with Chevron to explore forming a strategic alliance to develop commercially viable business opportunities in alternative energy sources including hydrogen.
Once seen as a good path to explore, it now seems that petroleum gas, either natural or manufactured, isn’t going to be a significant energy source for transportation although it may have a role to play as a transitional fuel in applications which persist with internal combustion engines.
“In the long term, all power trains will be electric,” says Romesh Rodrigo. “Battery electric will be last mile, and I see long haul will be hydrogen powered. There is going to be a certain amount of technology sharing because they are both essentially electric vehicles, it’s just the energy storage medium is different.”
Romesh Rodrigo’s comments also echo those of the global head of Daimler Trucks, Martin Daum.
“We are consistently pursuing our technology strategy for the electrification of our trucks,” he says. “We want to offer our customers the best locally CO²-neutral trucks – powered by either batteries or hydrogen-based fuel cells, depending on the use case.”
Obviously, hydrogen is acknowledged as the preferred course for development yet there is some debate about whether it is better to be transported in gaseous or liquid form.
Hydrogen provides its highest energy yield when transported as hydrogen rather than converted to ammonia or urea.
Locally, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has undertaken an extensive market study into the competitiveness of ‘green” hydrogen across 25 Australian industry sectors, finding that “green’ hydrogen is already approaching cost competitiveness for heavy trucking.
The CEFC’s Advancing Hydrogen Fund is aiming to invest up to $300 million of concessional finance to support the growth of a competitive Australian hydrogen industry. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) is providing almost $25 million in support of the establishment of more than 400 recharging stations for electric vehicles although most seemed targeted at passenger vehicle rather than commercial requirements.