Photo: Daimler Truck press materials

Experts weigh in on the prospects and challenges of Hydrogen fuel cell trucks

Hydrogen fuel cell trucks represent a promising option for emission-free transport over long distances, yet several hurdles remain to be overcome before a significant breakthrough can be achieved.

You can read this article in 6 minutes

In September 2020, Daimler Truck announced in Berlin its substantial investment in hydrogen technology. The CEO, Martin Daum, showcased the Mercedes-Benz GenH2 Concept Truck for the first time in public, highlighting the company’s commitment to technological advancement in this area.

The GenH2 Truck, developed by Daimler Truck, draws on the attributes of the traditional Mercedes-Benz Actros long-distance truck, especially in terms of pulling power, range, and performance.

The customer-test models of the Mercedes-Benz GenH2 truck, with a total weight of 40 tons and a payload of approximately 25 tons, achieve their considerable payload and extensive range through two specialised liquid hydrogen tanks and a high-performance fuel cell system.

Since 2021, the first prototypes of the Mercedes-Benz GenH2 truck have been undergoing rigorous testing. This year, Daimler Truck aims to advance further by deploying the fuel cell truck in actual customer operations.

Then, as soon as this summer, five companies will get their first hands-on experiences with the GenH2 truck. These semi-trailer trucks will operate in Germany on selected routes across various long-distance transport sectors.

Among these participating companies is Wiedmann & Winz from Geislingen an der Steige. Its GenH2 truck will be utilised in combined transport (CT) freight forwarding, and be tasked with hauling heavy sea containers from the CT terminal to various customers in daily freight operations.

What needs to happen for a breakthrough to occur?

Fuel cell trucks utilise a hydrogen fuel cell that employs an electrochemical process to convert hydrogen into electricity, which then powers the vehicle’s electric motor. This technology is especially beneficial for long distances and heavy loads where quick recharging is essential.

A fuel cell vehicle can refuel within a few minutes and offers a range comparable to conventional diesel trucks, often exceeding 1,000 kilometers.

However, the broad adoption of hydrogen in the transport industry faces several challenges, including insufficient infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations, and the high costs of producing “green” hydrogen, which is generated using renewable energy sources.

“Hydrogen technology is not yet fully competitive. We believe the path to climate protection involves various strategies. One is electromobility, another is hydrogen drives, and we also see potential in alternative and synthetic fuels like HVO 100 or eFuels. These can be used immediately by logistics companies to achieve significant CO2 reductions virtually overnight. For these technologies to compete, several conditions must be met: a comprehensive energy infrastructure is necessary, and energy prices must be competitive. Also, there needs to be cost parity with diesel trucks regarding the purchase prices of zero-emission trucks,” explained Dr. Micha Lege, Managing Director of Wiedmann & Winz.

Dr. Micha Lege added:

“Since this is challenging in the initial phase, public sector support through incentives is crucial. A reduction or cap on funding would send the wrong message and hinder the transition to new energy sources.”

Although the network of hydrogen stations for cars is expanding, it remains inadequate for trucks. Dr. Lege laments the scarcity of H2 filling stations, with only a few of the 100 stations in Germany equipped to serve trucks:

“If liquid H2 is employed – as planned for the GenH2 Truck – the logistical demands increase. Daimler Truck recently inaugurated the first public filling station for liquid H2 in Wörth, and a second is set to be built in Duisburg. The station in Wörth enables the GenH2 truck from Wiedmann & Winz to refuel, and the extensive range of over 1,000 kilometers is a significant advantage when using liquid hydrogen. However, substantial efforts are still necessary to establish an efficient and widespread refueling infrastructure.”

The Champagne of the Energy Transition’

The future of fuel cell trucks depends on multiple factors. Thus, to enhance the competitiveness of fuel cell trucks and facilitate the transition, both political and economic efforts are needed to make investment and operational costs more manageable.

Not only are acquisition costs currently very high, but the low price elasticity of hydrogen, driven by steady high demand from the chemical and steel industries, also renders the technology economically unviable. It’s no wonder then why hydrogen is dubbed the champagne of the energy transition.’

“A range of measures is required to support fleet operators in the initial phase. The purchase price, which is 4 to 5 times that of a diesel truck, is a significant barrier. However, operating costs must also be kept within reasonable limits (currently about 12 to 13 euros per kilo of hydrogen in Germany), and the filling station network needs to be denser. Despite these challenges, Wiedmann & Winz is eager to participate in these initial customer-oriented tests to gain early experience with the new technology. We have always embraced innovation and were the pioneers in implementing telematics and digitalization in transport with FleetBoard,” said Dr. Lay.

The widespread adoption of fuel cell trucks is still in its infancy, and substantial investment is necessary to harness the full potential of this technology. Despite the hurdles, the outlook is optimistic.

With continued investment and government support, fuel cell trucks could soon play a crucial role in eco-friendly freight transport. The involvement of companies like Wiedmann & Winz demonstrates the transport industry’s interest and commitment to this emerging technology.