NACFE Report Says Challenges Remain for Broad Fuel Cell Adoption

Mercedes Gen H2
Mercedes-Benz GenH2 Truck (Daimler Truck AG)

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Hydrogen fuel cell technology will likely roll out in heavy-duty trucks over the next five years, but hurdles remain before U.S. motor carriers will adopt them beyond small numbers of test vehicles, according to a new report.

“The technology is both mature enough for truck manufacturers to begin production, but immature enough that the first owners should not expect problem-free use,” the North American Council for Freight Efficiency said in its latest guidance report: Making Sense of Heavy-Duty Hydrogen Fuel Cell Tractors.

Several ventures are developing hydrogen fuel cell trucks. Toyota Motor Corp. on Dec. 10 unveiled a second-generation fuel cell system that it plans to eventually offer to heavy-duty truck builders looking to build hydrogen-powered tractors. It is working with Kenworth and Hino to build prototypes. Hyundai, Cummins and startup Nikola also are working on fuel cell trucks.

NACFE Guidance on Hydrogen ... by Transport Topics


A coalition that includes Daimler Trucks, Volvo Group, Iveco, and oil and gas producers Shell and OMV Aktiengesellschaft will work together over the next decade to “create the conditions for the mass-market rollout of hydrogen-fueled heavy-duty transportation,” the companies said in a Dec. 15 statement.

“Those partnerships are necessary if we are going to push this technology through to commercialization. None of the individual companies can support the level of investment to make this happen,” Kevin Otto, NACFE’s electrification lead, said at a Dec. 16 news conference. Despite the development activity, the production and distribution of hydrogen are among the most significant hurdles, according to NACFE.

“The truck is the smaller part of the whole equation here,” NACFE Executive Director Mike Roeth said.

Fuel cell-truck adoption will be governed by the creation and distribution of hydrogen, the availability of renewable energy, environmental regulations and government incentives to transform fleets to zero-emission vehicles, he said.

“The costs of hydrogen, vehicles and hydrogen production all must come down significantly to make hydrogen economically competitive with alternatives,” Roeth said in the Dec. 16 report.

There are not enough heavy-duty trucks to create sufficient demand to scale up hydrogen production fast enough to accelerate cost reduction, according to the report. That would leave fleets deploying fuel cell trucks with high fuel costs for years if trucks are the only incentive for hydrogen production, the report said. Cost reductions depend on greater industrial use of hydrogen by multiple industries, including most energy power plants, chemical producers, steelmakers and other material processors, the report also said.

The cost will decline over time through scaling and technology improvement, Roeth said.

The U.S. produces 10 million metric tons of hydrogen annually. Far more would be needed if longhaul freight transitions to fuel cell tractors. Currently, the largest hydrogen users are the petroleum processing industry (68%) and fertilizer makers (21%). There is almost no fueling infrastructure in the U.S. to support fleets of hydrogen-powered trucks.

The technology behind fuel cell trucks is less of a challenge, the report said. Truck builders are leveraging the engineering and experience developing battery-electric tractors to develop fuel cell trucks. That’s because the drivetrains in both vehicle types are electric. The difference is the source of the electricity. Fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity, emitting water as the byproduct.


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Fleets should use the battery-electric trucks as the baseline comparison when deciding whether to deploy a fuel cell tractor, Roeth said. Each works for a particular duty cycle. Fuel cell trucks likely will be better for longhaul routes, while battery-electric vehicles work for shorter distances and applications in which the truck returns to a base periodically for charging.

They also have different energy-efficiency profiles.

Making electricity to electrolyze hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles is not as efficient as making electricity and using it to power battery-electric trucks, the report said.

“Every time energy gets converted from one form to another, there are losses. The more transformations there are, the more losses occur,” said Steve Hanley of CleanTechnica.

“While hydrogen fuel cell technology is very promising, we know that widespread adoption will take time,” Amy Davis, Cummins’ president of new power business, said in the report. “Many factors will influence this, including emissions regulations, infrastructure, hydrogen availability and total costs of ownership.”

Davis expects buses and trains will see some of the first commercialization of fuel cell technology, followed by heavy-duty trucking.

Manufacturers are developing fuel cell trucks as states and nations adopt more stringent environmental regulations.

For example, California will require that 5% of the new trucks sold be zero-emission vehicles starting in 2024. That grows to 40% by 2032. This year, 15 states and the District of Columbia set a goal of having 30% of new commercial truck sales be zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Canada is moving in a similar direction but has yet to work out the details.

Governments will have to provide incentives, grants, credits and tax breaks to help offset the higher price for fuel cell trucks than diesel vehicles if they want to reach those goals.

“Truck production volumes versus zero-emission target dates will require zero-emission transport financial help for some years,” the report said.

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