Nikola’s hydrogen-powered Tre truck, which it says has a range of up to 1,200 kilometers and can be charged in 10-15 minutes.
Zero-emissions technology is spreading beyond the passenger car market and into the world of commercial vehicles as regulators make tougher demands of manufacturers on pollution reduction and haulers eye potentially lower fuel and maintenance costs.
Along with buses, trucks dump roughly a quarter of the world’s transport-related CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, and forecasts suggest that road freight will double by 2050. Commercial vehicle decarbonization is becoming a two-horse race between battery-electric, the standard for new cleaner passenger cars, and hydrogen, which many see as the preferred option for heavier, long-distance trucks.
“There will be a division of labor, but not actually so simplistic that big trucks just go hydrogen and small trucks go battery. I truly believe there will be a coexistence of both these technologies,” said Bernd Heid, senior partner and member of the global automotive team at consultancy McKinsey.
“The beauty about commercial vehicles is that this is not an emotional business,” Heid said, given that fleet buyers are immune to the styling and gadgetry that often clinch a passenger car sale. “You care just about costs so it’s far simpler to project the future of commercial vehicle powertrains.”
Breaking the dependency on fossil fuels, while costly and disruptive, brings potential benefits that extend far beyond reduced pollution. The near-silent powertrains could cut the cost of road haulage, and therefore the goods that they carry, and pave the way for autonomous driving technology that is incompatible with current models. With some legislators limiting or banning fossil fuel trucks in cities and on highways, avoiding tightening regulations with cleaner technology could also become critical to operational efficiency in the thin-margin road freight industry.
The road to zero-emissions will prove the most torturous for the heaviest trucks. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts only one in five heavy goods vehicles will be electric by 2040 and that natural gas, which has lower emissions than diesel, will have a role to play at least in the interim.