Plans by Hyundai to ship a new series of fuel-cell trucks to Europe later this year,  appears to be turning up the heat on rivals in a battle to test the viability of hydrogen-powered heavy goods transportation.

A new generation of Hyundai’s Xcient heavy duty trucks, will be equipped with more efficient fuel cells with a longer lifespan, and is due to arrive in Europe in the fourth quarter this year  according to  Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility’s CEO, Mark Freymueller.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle tech has lagged battery electric vehicles (BEV) in the green transport stakes because they are more expensive, but proponents say that for long-haul and heavy duty transport, hydrogen-power has the advantage because of both a much greater range and a lower weight penalty.

HHM is a joint venture between Hyundai and Swiss hydrogen company H2 Energy andhas been renting out “green” hydrogen trucks to commercial clients in Switzerland since last October, in what is the world’s most advanced pilot in hydrogen fuel cell tech.

HHM plans to enter other European countries in 2023.

“Germany and the Netherlands are the most likely,” Freymueller said, adding there is also interest for pilots in Austria, Norway, France, Italy, Spain and Denmark.

Hyundai’s latest push will put more pressure on local large European players in the truck business, who are developing their own hydrogen plans.

Daimler with Volvo, have entered a joint venture to develop Hydrogen FCEVs  while Iveco is cooperating with US based low-emission truck maker, Nikola, in which the Italian giant has taken an equity stake.

Hydrogen has come into the spotlight in Europe, where EU environment ministers want to cut 2019 truck CO2 emissions levels by a third by 2030.

Some Euro governments are threatening potential bans of diesel trucks and the imposition of higher taxes, as well as promising up the incentive of up to 75 per cent lower road tolls for greener vehicles.

Although currently more expensive than battery electric vehicles, fuel cell electric vehicles,  which use onboard hydrogen to create electricity to replenish the vehicle’s batteries, are set to benefit from Europe’s desire to build a world-leading industry around hydrogen technology.

A major study by a leading European consultancy, Berylis, reckons that by 2030, 25 per cent of new truck sales in Europe will be BEVs and that hydrogen FCEVs will account for around 10 per cent, but that the ratio could change considerably as green hydrogen is scaled up.

Hyundai chose Switzerland for its pilot on the basis of the country’s benign regulations, environmentally conscious customers and reliable green electricity generated by hydro electric plants, which account for 58 per cent of the Switzerland’s power mix. Local road tax is waived in Switzerland for no-carbon vehicles while fossil fuel vehicles pay around $AUD1200 (€800) for each tonne of CO2 they emit.

“Anyone wanting to see how fuel cell technology works on the road should go to Switzerland,” said Steffen Stumpp, head of the business unit commercial vehicles at Berylls.

Initial customer feedback on Hyundai’s pay-per-use pilot seems positive. Drivers at Swiss grocery chain Coop apparently like the similar payload to diesel trucks and  the  refuelling process  which like diesel trucks takes only a few minutes.

“The biggest advantage is that there was no need to change my driving style, what was new for me was the huge acceleration and the quiet engine,” said Nadine Sigrist, who is a driver for retailer Migros in the Zurich region and part of the pilot program with Hyundai.

As more Hyundai trucks arrive, Swiss power utility Alpiq is planning to ramp up its electrolysis capacity at Niedergoesgen where it produces green hydrogen that is then transported on trucks as gas to filling stations.

“We will go from 2 megawatts in the direction of double-digit, or 5-10 megawatts,” said Amedee Murisier, head of hydropower generation at Alpiq and a board member of Hydrospider, a Swiss green hydrogen joint venture between Alpiq, global gas supplier Linde, and H2 Energy.

Hydrospider estimate it should reach break even as soon as 2022, Murisier said.

McKinsey Consulting expects hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles to achieve break-even with diesel around 2028 at the earliest, but carmakers are pushing ahead with hydrogen plans, albeit at different speeds.

Nikola and Iveco say they will produce a fuel cell electric vehicle in Europe by 2023, putting it two years ahead of the Volvo and Daimler joint venture expectations.

Separately, Daimler group subsidiary Mercedes Benz is said to be preparing customer trials for its GenH2 Truck in 2023.

“Nikola’s timeline is significantly ahead of  the Daimler/Volvo JV,” said Stumpp.

“Hyundai will be neck and neck with Nikola/Iveco if they offer the Xcient in other European markets,” he added .

Daimler Truck boss, Martin Daum said that a hydrogen fuelling network needed to be in place before fuel cell trucks would find buyers, which could take years to develop, so they were timing their moves in line with the infrastructure.

Truck maker Paccar’s DAF is also in the game, but its priority is battery electric vehicles, although its US brand’s Kenworth and Peterbilt have already  produced hydrogen FCEV trucks using Toyota fuel cells in California.

Nikola/ Iveco is actively and planning market entry into the BEV sector by  fourth quarter this year.

Other companies have also chosen to put fuel cell technology second.

Traton, the Volkswagen truck division, recently said that only the battery route had been chosen by its MAN and Scania units.

“Hydrogen trucks have a decisive disadvantage. Only a quarter of the original energy goes into propulsion, three-quarters is lost through conversion,” Traton CEO Matthias Gruendler said.

“With e-trucks, the ratio is the other way around,” they said.

However Traton has left the door open, by raising its investment in its US subsidiary Navistar, that is itself developing fuel cells in the Americas.c