Volkswagen’s truck subsidiary, the Traton Group is betting on battery-electric trucks, even for long-haul, and says hydrogen fuel cells aren’t as efficient as good old batteries.

The stand being taken by Traton goes against the philosophies ope most of its global truck opponents and even against  its MOU partner Hino/Toyota, which is also firmly wedded to advancing hydrogen fuel cell  truck power. Traton says a new scientific analysis backs up its strategy.

The study  by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI published in a recent scientific article (and reported here on T&B News last week) concluding that battery-electric drive is superior to fuel cell in the vast majority of regions and of commercial vehicle applications, including long-distance heavy-duty transport.

The article, “Hydrogen Unlikely to Play Major Role in Road Transport, Even for Heavy Trucks,” was published in the journal Nature Electronics.

“Hydrogen will play a vital role in industry, shipping and synthetic aviation fuels,” wrote Patrick Plötz, coordinator of the energy economy business unit at the Fraunhofer Institute. “But for road transport, we cannot, I believe, wait for hydrogen technology to catch up, and our focus now should be on battery-electric vehicles in both passenger and freight transport.”

Traton officials were apparently pleased, but not surprised, by the analysis.

“In truck traffic, especially on long-distance routes, pure e-trucks will in most cases be the cheaper and more environmentally friendly solution,” said Catharina Modahl-Nilsson, Traton chief technical officer, in a statement. “This is because hydrogen trucks have a decisive disadvantage: Only about a quarter of the output energy flows into the drive. Three-quarters is lost through conversion losses. With the e-truck, the ratio is reversed.”

In addition, the expected amount of green hydrogen is limited, even with large-scale imports, the Fraunhofer analysis pointed out. The demand from European industry alone, such as steel mills, massively exceeds the total green hydrogen production capacity currently planned for the EU for 2030.

While these comments reflect the situation in Europe, the new chief of Traton-owned Navistar made similar comments in a recent reporter roundtable.

Mathias Carlbaum said that while there is a use case for hydrogen, such as for very long distances with irregular routes, “we believe that case will be closed over time with the advancement in battery technology.”

“Battery-electric long-distance trucks are coming, the technology is there, and the networks will go along with it,” Modahl-Nilsson said. “What’s needed now is political support to achieve massive CO2 savings quickly with this technology. That’s why the development of a high-performance charging network for e-trucks must be pushed forward promptly, and with government support.”

Traton expects that by 2030, as much as 50% of its new sales in long-haul transport could be battery-electric, provided the charging infrastructure is in place.

The current challenge for battery-electric vehicles is long-haul logistics operations and transport of very heavy goods, and this is the use case often discussed for hydrogen trucks. Several truck manufacturers, as well as fuel-cell and infrastructure providers, have joined forces and announced a target of 100,000 fuel-cell trucks on European roads by 2030.

Volvo, for instance, sees hydrogen as a key player in decarbonizing truck transport. Daimler Truck is keen on hydrogen fuel cells, as well, and the two companies formed a joint venture called cellcentric. The venture has plans to build one of Europe’s largest series production facilities for fuel-cell systems, with operations slated to begin in 2025.

However, Plötz pointed out that truck makers have said the earliest start date for the production of commercial series fuel-cell electric trucks is in 2027. “By that time, the second-generation battery electric vehicles will already be commercially available and in operation.”

Fuel-cell-electric powertrains are not as efficiency as battery-electric, according to Traton.Graphic: Traton