By the end of the decade, the sight of fuel cell trucks on the roads of Europe won’t be a big surprise, predicts Lars Martensson, Volvo Trucks’ Environment and Innovations Director. In this interview, he explains how fuel cell trucks are disruptive innovations, how they will change Volvo’s business model and what can be learned from the introduction of LNG trucks as we pivot towards sustainable transport.
Hi Lars, welcome to Trans.INFO – thanks so much for talking to us. Could you introduce yourself to our readers please, and explain what you do at Volvo Trucks?
My title is environment and innovation director, which means I’m involved in working on sustainable transport, specifically focusing on the environment and also working quite a lot on the more disruptive and radical types of innovations. I mention such innovations because major changes will take place over the next decade. For example, the sustainability and performance of freight transport and the trucks themselves are going to be changed radically.
How can fuel cell vehicles be considered as disruptive innovations?
There are three types of innovations. The first type is incremental, which aims for continuous improvements. For example, reducing fuel consumption by another 1% via improvements to a combustion engine. The second type is radical, which refers to inventions that result in major steps in terms of technology, but the business model remains the same. The third type of innovations are called disruptive. This means that the new invention that is born leads to a major step in terms of technology, also in terms of business model.
This is something that we are looking at when developing fuel cell trucks or when we look at more autonomous solutions. For example, you can build autonomous construction machines and trucks that can operate together.
We probably wouldn’t sell these trucks or machines as we have done before, but we will sell the service they are providing. So we will not only change the product itself radically, but also change the business model we use. And this is why some technologies are disruptive innovations for us; they will bring a change in the business model too.
Before we dive into the details of hydrogen trucks, can you point out the key differences between a fuel cell truck and an electric truck?
I would say there are a lot of similarities between the fuel cell electric trucks and battery-electric trucks. The similarity is that they both use an electric motor system to drive the truck forward.
The major difference is how you fill up these batteries with energy. In the case of the battery-electric truck, it happens by charging. While in a fuel cell electric truck, the energy comes from hydrogen that is stored in a hydrogen tank and then converted into electricity in the fuel cell.
When the transportation industry talks of fuel cell trucks representing a path to a sustainable future, we usually mean the zero-emissions these vehicles emit. However, we forget about how the hydrogen or the electricity fuelling the vehicle is produced. Can you say hydrogen is a green energy?
Well, not in the way it’s produced in Europe today. At least 96% of the hydrogen produced in Europe comes from fossil sources, specifically natural gas. From that perspective, it’s not green as it doesn’t come from a renewable source.
In the long run, renewable forces should be used to produce hydrogen, like wind or solar power, and this kind of hydrogen production should be cheaper. Without that, it wouldn’t be a cost-efficient solution with electrolyzers to produce green hydrogen. So access to cheap electricity from renewable sources will be key for us if we are to call hydrogen a green energy.
There is a common belief that there are several precious metals like platinum inside a fuel cell battery. Therefore, hydrogen fuelled trucks will never be affordable enough for general use. Is this still true?
Platinum is a rare material, meaning that it exists just in some few places in the world, primarily in South Africa and Russia. But it’s also a metal that we already use in the catalyst of our trucks today. But, of course, with a fuel cell, we will also have a need for more platinum, that’s true.
The good thing about platinum, though, is that it can be recycled and recycling is already ongoing because it’s such valuable material. So, of course, with increasing volumes of fuel cells in the future, there will be a greater need for platinum. Therefore, there will also be a greater need to have efficient recycling of the metal.
However, recycling is not an issue for fuel cell vehicles only. Platinum is the main component in the fuel cell, yes. But electric-powered vehicles also have batteries, and in those, we will most likely have some cobalt or other materials, who need to be recycled.
Do you think that fuel cell trucks offer the best path towards a sustainable future for road freight?
The short answer is „no”. The longer answer is „it depends”. We believe that battery-electric trucks will be a very promising solution for local and regional distribution – and by regional, we’re talking about a range of up to 300 kilometres.
Fuel cell electric trucks will be a better solution for the heavier and more demanding long haul transport going through Europe. The fuel cell truck will have the advantage of range, therefore less need to have a dense infrastructure. But at the same time, for some types of transportations, there will still be a need and opportunity for the combustion engine running on different types of fuels like liquefied biogas.
You have mentioned LNG as a fuel. When we think about fuel cell trucks operating on hydrogen, is there anything we can learn from the introduction of LNG or CNG trucks?
Absolutely. One of the critical points, when we are speaking about a shift from diesel trucks to other, alternatively fuelled trucks, is to be clear on what is expected in terms of reliability and performance. These are two key areas that will be important, also for the introduction of fuel cell trucks.
But maybe the most obvious one is the question of infrastructure. If we want to sell our trucks running on hydrogen, we need to have a comprehensive infrastructure in place, which allows this type of truck to drive throughout Europe. So a good way forward is to start by building the infrastructure among the main transport corridors in Europe, and in turn cover a major part of the transport network. And then we can grow step by step from there.
And the third area I also would like to highlight is people’s beliefs. In this way, hydrogen is very similar to LNG. When thinking about gas, the first things that come to people’s minds are explosions and therefore concerns about safety.
This is a very important lesson we have learned from the introduction of LNG vehicles; we must inform and educate drivers and users to make them understand how hydrogen fuel cells work. It is our task to develop fuel cell trucks that aren’t any less safe than a traditional diesel truck and make people understand this.
Within the transport sector, the interest in using fuel cell technology seems to be increasing, but not at the same rate as electric battery technology. What do you think is the biggest obstacle for fuel cell trucks at the moment?
I think it’s its costs – regarding development, the price of fuel cell trucks and the cost of operation.
But it will change. We have just formed a joint venture with Daimler, our major competitor, and will develop and produce fuel cells together to build up larger volumes and also to reduce costs. Basically, the aim of this joint venture is to make fuel cell trucks a feasible solution before the end of this decade and with this, to remove the obstacle costs.
The person responsible for developing Toyota’s fuel cell system, Professor Katsuhiko Hirose, once said in an interview that to change the world into alternative fuel, we need to provide the fuel cell cheaper than conventional vehicles’. Do you think this is the way to go?
I will say that if we achieved this, it would, of course, be very positive. It is true that in order to make fuel cell trucks profitable for our customers, the price of the hydrogen that our customers will pay us should be lower than it is now. There is a big need to make sure that hydrogen is competitive and makes the total business operation profitable.
Nevertheless, at the same time we strive to reduce the cost of the fuel cell electric trucks, too. But in general, we believe that these trucks themselves will be more expensive than their diesel equivalents. However, the total cost of ownership won’t be higher than other trucks. This will be absolutely doable and it will make a big difference.
That touches on the change in the business model you mentioned earlier regarding disruptive inventions. What are Volvo’s plans in this aspect?
We have not communicated yet how we will sell trucks, but I think there will be different ways to get the service or the product you need.
One of these ways could be different kinds of leasing agreements. One type of leasing might be getting the availability and uptime of a truck. And within that agreement we would make sure that the customer would be able do their transport assignment: we would take care of everything from service to battery replacement, and so forth.
That is not where we are today, but this is the type of future business model that we are evaluating for the future.
So what are the next steps towards the commercialization of fuel cell trucks in the transport sector?
There are several steps. One is the vehicle and driveline development that we shall continue. At the same time, we plan to build experience with this technology together with our customers. And we will also need to continue the dialogue with energy companies as well as our decision makers or politicians to drive the development of the required infrastructure.
And of course, the infrastructure needs to follow the pace of say, the introduction of the first fuel cell hydrogen trucks.
Finally, and I think is extremely important too, it is crucial to increase the access and availability of green hydrogen – hydrogen produced from renewable sources.
You have mentioned the responsibility of politicians and decision makers regarding hydrogen-fuelled transportation. There are some challenging deadlines for truck manufacturers on the horizon, namely the Paris Agreement or the EU Green deal. What else is needed in your opinion – either on a country level or a European level?
The EU’s commitment to the Paris Agreement forms a very strong base, showing not just the direction but also the speed of this transformation. Also, the EU Green Deal has clearly stated what is expected in the transportation sector in terms of electrification but also with regards to hydrogen. So I would say that the EU has set the direction and also decided on the directions of developments it supports.
A couple of years ago, the EU set two deadlines for truck manufacturers. Firstly, we are required to reduce CO2 emissions of trucks compared to 2019 rates by 15% until 2025, and we shall reduce emissions to 30% by 2030. For us, the requirement to meet this 30% reduction by 2030 is a really strong driver regarding both battery electric trucks and fuel cell electric trucks.
On top of that, we need support for the implementation of this new technology, as that’s the critical part here. A lot of this new technology – regardless if whether its a new hydrogen station or charging station for the electric truck – is costly at first.
Therefore, incentives, both for the infrastructure, as well as for the truck buyers who will purchase the first fuel cell or battery electric trucks, are needed. With the help of those first steps, we can increase volumes and reduce costs, and, of course, in the end, these incentives won’t be needed.
Finally, if I may, I’ll ask you something you’ve probably been asked before – when do you think is the nearest future when we will see hydrogen trucks on the roads regularly?
I can repeat what I have said earlier, the second half of this decade. That is when we will have a commercial solution and the production of hydrogen fuel cell trucks available.
Even in the closer future, we will see the first customer trials tests taking place. So, step by step, people will see more about these new trucks and also learn more about them and what they can achieve.
Photo credit @ Volvo Trucks