Batteries Battle Fuel Cells for Top Spot for Electric Trucks

Michael Lohscheller
Nikola President Michael Lohscheller at IAA by Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

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Nikola President Michael Lohscheller was beaming when he unveiled the U.S. startup’s fuel cell truck for the European market at the region’s biggest commercial vehicle show this week.

Series production of Nikola’s Tre FCEV, which boasts a range of up to 500 miles and refueling times of 20 minutes, will start in early 2024 in Europe, Lohscheller told reporters Sept. 19 at the IAA Transportation event in Hanover, Germany.

“We believe this truck will change the world as we know it today,” he said.

But Nikola this week also began taking orders in Europe for its battery-electric Tre, which is closer to series production. The U.S. startup’s dual-technology approach — Lohscheller described it as “standing on two legs” — shows how most manufacturers haven’t yet made up their mind on which technology will become the dominant drivetrain for emission-free commercial vehicles.

Companies like Nikola, Volvo and Daimler Truck are pursuing both battery-electric rigs and vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, in a costly bet on two technologies. The odd player out is Volkswagen’s Traton, which argues that batteries will win out over fuel cells because they’re more energy-efficient.

Sweden’s Volvo, the second-biggest truck maker behind Daimler, is touting renewable fuels as an alternative to diesel and a viable third option. The company argues they’ll be needed to help make the existing fleet of combustion-engine trucks more environmentally friendly.

Karin Radstrom

Karin Radstrom at the IAA Transportation show by Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

“It will not be one solution that fits all,” said Jessica Sandstrom, a senior vice president of global product management at Volvo Trucks. “To reach zero emissions, there are some customers who will continue to operate with a combustion engine.”

Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz Trucks is investing in both longhaul electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks, a move that will allow the company to follow customer demand if it breaks in favor of one technology or the other. While lithium-ion batteries are generally considered ideal for short and medium-distance trips, hydrogen was long seen as the only alternative for longer, heavier hauls. Yet with surging raw material prices and a slowing global economy, the math on what works best can change quickly.

“It’s super hard to predict what will happen in 2030 and what will bring the most efficient cost of operation to the customer,” said Mercedes-Benz Trucks CEO Karin Radstrom, adding that she expects the availability of charging infrastructure and clean energy to determine how much share each technology will get.

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“That’s why it’s so important to develop both in parallel,” she said.

More stringent environmental protection rules may add to their attractiveness. In California, most trucks are allowed to idle for at most five minutes, meaning drivers waiting in line longer than that at the Port of Los Angeles, for example, would have to turn off their AC, even when it’s really hot. Unless the battery is almost empty, that’s not an issue in an electric vehicle.

Volvo is convinced battery rigs can help counter a painful truck driver shortage that only worsened during the pandemic.

With their smooth ride experience, electric trucks “will be a competitive advantage to attract new drivers and keep the ones you have,” Sandstrom said.