Batteries or fuel cells: Who’s in it for the long haul?

Posted Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 11:35

Last week, Tesla revealed the newest—and biggest, by far—addition to its fleet of electric vehicles: a battery-powered all-electric Class 8 truck. Battery electric freight trucks have been on the road for many years (albeit in very small numbers). What makes this truck special is that it’s designed for long-distance travel. Elon Musk boasted a headline-grabbing 500 miles of range and also talked about plans for building out an extensive network of fast-charge DC recharging stations. Though we certainly shouldn’t take Tesla’s claims about range without some healthy skepticism, the company is clearly making a strong play in the long-haul trucking market, which is a big deal.

But Tesla isn’t the only company betting big on long-haul electric trucks. Over the past year we’ve see splashy announcements from a diverse set of companies, including well-established global automotive giants such as Toyota and Cummins and smaller startups such as Nikola Motors. The sleek, futuristic exterior designs of these trucks are the first thing to catch the eye. But as you’d expect, we’re more interested in what’s under the hood.

The need to carry very heavy loads across long distances makes long-haul trucking one of the hardest vehicle segments to electrify. At present, the three types of all-electric propulsion options with the best prospects for near-term commercialization in the long-range trucking market are batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and overhead catenary systems. In a recent study, we summarized the current state of technology for each of these three systems, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each in terms of total cost of ownership (i.e., vehicle and infrastructure costs, maintenance, insurance, etc.) and fleet-wide fuel and emissions impacts. For long-haul applications specifically, one of our key conclusions was that there is no clear winner among the three options; each has both barriers and benefits.

With no one-size-fits-all solution, what zero-emission technology stands to capture the majority of the long-haul trucking market? Only time will tell, but there are some clues that make our crystal ball a little less foggy. Recent trends in the passenger car market may tilt the scales in batteries’ favor. First, battery electric vehicle sales have surged — there are now roughly 2 million battery electric cars on the road worldwide — while the hydrogen fuel cell market is still in its infancy, with sales in the first half of 2017 of only 1,600 units. With automakers such as Telsa and Toyota heavily leveraging the powertrain systems from their light-duty product lines in order to take advantage of economies of scale in the much larger passenger vehicle market, rapidly increasing battery electric car sales give batteries an advantage over hydrogen in capturing the early market for long-haul electric trucks. Conversely, groups that are more bullish on hydrogen for the trucking sector point to the range advantage that fuel cells have over batteries to argue that semi trucks will gravitate towards hydrogen over time. Chances are, given the tremendous diversity of applications in the trucking sector, there will be plenty of room for all of the electrification options.

Beyond what’s under the hood, more research is needed into how policy can facilitate the electrification of the trucking industry. Our many studies from the light-duty sector strongly suggest that it will take a mix of regulations, monetary and non-monetary incentives, and broad public education campaigns if we hope to completely transition to electric trucks worldwide and bend down the curves of rapidly increasing global fuel use and emissions trajectories from on-road freight movement.