Daimler’s truck unit maps plans to replace diesel with hydrogen

An undated photo provided by Daimler of a prototype of their GenH2 hydrogen-powered truck. (Photo: NYTimes)
Carmakers have been promising to scrap the internal combustion engine, and now it is the truck-makers’ turn. But the makers of giant 18-wheelers are taking a different route.اضافة اعلان

Daimler, the world’s largest maker of heavy trucks, whose Freightliners are a familiar sight on US interstates, said last week that it would convert to zero-emission vehicles within 15 years at the latest, providing another example of how the shift to electric power is reshaping vehicle manufacturing with significant implications for the climate, economic growth and jobs.

The journey away from fossil fuels will play out differently and take longer in the trucking industry than it will for passenger cars. For one thing, zero-emission long-haul trucks are not yet available in large numbers.

And different technology may be needed to power the electric motors. Batteries work well for delivery vehicles and other short-haul trucks, which are already on the roads in significant numbers. But Daimler argues that battery power is not ideal for long-haul 18-wheelers, at least with current technology. The weight of the batteries alone subtracts too much from payload, an important consideration for cost-conscious trucking companies.

Instead, Daimler and some rivals are betting on fuel cells that generate electricity from hydrogen. Fuel cells produce no tailpipe emissions, and hydrogen fuel tanks can be refilled as fast as diesel tanks — a distinct advantage compared with batteries, which typically take at least twice as long to recharge.

In April, Daimler began testing a prototype “GenH2” long-haul truck capable of going 966km between visits to the hydrogen pump. But a lot of work is needed to bring down the cost of the equipment, and there is not yet a network of hydrogen fueling stations or an adequate supply of hydrogen produced in a way that does not cancel out the environmental benefits.

Last week, Daimler provided details of how it plans to solve these problems, with the goal of selling hydrogen-fueled long-haul trucks by 2027 that will be cheaper to buy and operate than diesel models.

During an online presentation Thursday, Daimler executives announced a partnership with Shell to build a “hydrogen corridor” of fueling stations spanning northern Europe. For shorter-haul trucks, Daimler announced a partnership with the Chinese company Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) to develop batteries, as well as partnerships with Siemens and other companies to install high-voltage charging stations in Europe and the United States.

In March, Daimler and Volvo Trucks, which are usually intense rivals, formed a joint venture to develop fuel-cell systems that will convert hydrogen to electricity to power long-distance trucks. The message is that the energy transition is too big even for a company the size of Daimler, with revenue last year of 154 billion euros, or $188 billion, to manage on its own.

Daimler has been working on hydrogen fuel-cell technology for decades, but the technology is not yet cheap enough or rugged enough for commercial use.

“The fuel cells out there today are not at all fulfilling the demands that we have coming from our customers,” Lars Stenqvist, chief technology officer of Volvo Trucks (which is a separate company from Volvo Cars), said in an interview from company headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. “That’s one reason to join forces with Daimler, in order to share that development burden.”

Daimler, based in Stuttgart, Germany, is planning this year to split its truck-making and bus-making operations from the division that makes Mercedes-Benz cars, forming a separate company with its own stock market listing. The spinoff of Daimler Truck, announced in February, is a momentous event for the company, which traces its roots to the inventors of the automobile and was once a sprawling conglomerate that manufactured airplanes and trains as well as autos.

One motivation for the amicable divorce is to give the truck unit more freedom to react to technological change while raising money from investors to help finance the enormous cost of developing emission-free long-haul vehicles.

“Independent management and governance will allow them to operate even faster,” Daimler CEO Ola Källenius said Thursday.

Daimler managers concede that some portions of its truck business are ailing. In the United States, Freightliner, which Daimler acquired in 1981, is the top-selling brand of heavy truck, with more than a third of the market. But in Europe, Mercedes-Benz trucks have lost market share and score behind rivals in customer-satisfaction surveys.

Karin Radstrom, hired this year from rival Scania to fix the Daimler Truck business in Europe and Latin America, said the company put too much energy into fancy engineering for which customers weren’t willing to pay.

“To some extent, we lost touch with our customers,” Radstrom said during the presentation Thursday.

Daimler says its aim is to make battery-powered short-haul trucks that can compete on cost with diesel by 2025 and long-haul fuel-cell trucks that achieve diesel parity by 2027.

“In that very moment when the customer starts benefiting more from a zero-emission truck than a diesel truck, well, there’s no reason to buy a diesel truck anymore,” Andreas Gorbach, chief technology officer for Daimler’s trucks and buses division, said during Thursday’s presentation. “This is the tipping point.”

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