Traditional competitors Daimler and Volvo are teaming up to bring a new line of hydrogen fuel-cell-powered trucks to market by 2025.
They will enter an emerging market segment alongside established manufacturers like Stellantis, Toyota and Hyundai, as well as startups such as Nikola. Fuel-cell technology is seen by many as a viable alternative to battery-powered trucks since it can offer longer range and quick refueling.
“Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell electric trucks will be key for enabling CO2-neutral transportation in the future,” said Martin Daum, chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler Truck AG. “Battery-electric trucks alone will not make this possible.”
Cellcentric’s trucks to debut as early as 2025
Together, Daimler and Volvo have formed a new joint venture, Cellcentric. The project is expected to start ramping up early prototypes this year, with mass production “to commence in 2025,” according to a joint statement. The two companies have been working together on the development of fuel cells for about a year in a separate partnership.
Fuel-cell “stacks” combine hydrogen with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce a flow of current which is used to power electric motors. That’s why some proponents refer to fuel cells as “refillable batteries.” In practice, most fuel-cell vehicles, or FCVs, add a small battery pack to provide additional current under heavy load demands.
While some manufacturers — notably Tesla — plan to bring battery-powered medium and long-haul trucks to market over the next few years, they face severe limits to range and require lengthy recharge cycles. FCVs can tank up as quickly as a comparable diesel- or gas-powered model, and range can run to 1,000 miles or more between refills.
The only exhaust produced by a fuel-cell system is water vapor. But the challenge is coming up with clean sources of ultra-light hydrogen. Environmentalists prefer to see it produced by electrolyzing water into its components — two parts of hydrogen and one part oxygen — using solar and wind energy.
Setting up a refueling network is a critical challenge
The other challenge is then distributing the fuel. Daimler and Volvo are seeking assistance from the European Union to put 300 hydrogen stations in place capable of handling heavy-duty trucks by 2025, that number jumping to 1,000 stations by 2030.
“There needs to be greater cooperation between public and private stakeholders to develop the necessary technology and infrastructure,” said Martin Lundstedt, CEO of Volvo Group, “which is why we are calling for united action from policymakers and governments around the world in helping us make hydrogen fuel-cell technology a success.”
There already is a small but growing network of hydrogen stations in Europe, primarily in Germany, with 90 outlets, and 25 in France.
To create Cellcentric, Volvo invested 600 million euros, or $727 million, to acquire a 50% stake of Daimler’s truck fuel-cell subsidiary. The operation already employs 300 “highly specialized experts,” the partners said Thursday.
Plenty of competition in the works
Their joint venture targets an emerging market segment that has seen a burst of activity over the last several years. Stellantis — the industry powerhouse created by the recent merger of Fiat Chrysler and PSA — will begin deliveries of a new medium-sized fuel-cell van late this year.
Toyota recently announced plans to step up development of prototype hydrogen trucks, some of which have been used at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Hyundai launched an entirely new subsidiary developing fuel-cell technology for trucks, as well as rail, aircraft and other applications.
Startup Nikola now plans to begin production of short-range hydrogen trucks in 2023, long-range models following a year later.
Nikola last week announced a partnership with TravelCenters of America, one of the country’s largest operators of freeway service centers, to deploy a hydrogen refueling network. Currently, only about 100 public hydrogen stations are open in the U.S., most in California, and only a handful are capable of servicing large trucks.
At least initially, Cellcentric will focus on the EU region. It has not indicated if or when it might expand distribution of its new fuel-cell trucks to other markets.