Carmakers have been promising to scrap the internal combustion engine, and now it’s the truckmakers’ turn. But the makers of giant 18-wheelers are taking a different route.
Daimler, the world’s largest maker of heavy trucks, whose Freightliners are a familiar sight on American 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.
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 CATL to develop batteries, and partnerships with Siemens and other companies to install high-voltage charging stations in Europe and the United States.
Trevor Milton, resigned last year facing accusations he had made numerous false assertions about the company’s hydrogen fuel-cell technology.
Nikola at least demonstrated how eager investors are to put their money into hydrogen trucks. Another example is Hyzon, a maker of fuel cells based in Rochester, N.Y., that has begun offering complete trucks and buses. In February, Hyzon was acquired by Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corporation, a so-called SPAC that raises money before it has any assets.
Tesla unveiled a design for a battery-powered semi truck in 2017, which the company has said it will begin delivering this year. Tesla, Scania and some other truckmakers are skeptical of hydrogen technology, which they regard as too expensive and less energy-efficient.
The traditional truckmakers like Daimler and Volvo have some advantages over the start-ups. Truck buyers tend to be practical hauling firms or drivers who carefully calculate the costs of maintenance and fuel consumption before they make a decision. Managers of big fleets may also be reluctant to take a chance on a manufacturer without a long track record.
President Biden has been promoting electric vehicles, but has not yet defined what that means for the trucking industry.
Trucking companies, which have depended on diesel for most of the last century, will have to revamp their maintenance departments, install their own charging or hydrogen fueling stations in some cases, retrain drivers and learn to plan their routes around hydrogen or electric charging points.
But Mr. Kedzie said that emission-free trucks also had some advantages. Fuel costs for battery-powered vehicles are much lower than for diesel trucks. Maintenance costs may be lower because electric vehicles have fewer moving parts. Drivers like the way electric trucks perform — an important factor at the moment when there is a driver shortage in America.
Many companies that ship a lot of goods, like Walmart or Target, are trying to reduce their carbon footprints and taking an interest in zero-emission trucks. “There are a lot of potential benefits” Mr. Kedzie said.
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.