Martin Daum

The right way to emission-free transport

October 13, 2021 - In a guest commentary for the daily newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” Martin Daum advocates a focus on batteries and fuel cells - and warns of expensive dead ends such as natural gas and overhead electric lines. Here’s the original wording:

In the fight against climate change, policymakers are setting increasingly ambitious goals. The EU aims to become climate neutral by 2050 and has considerably tightened the intermediate targets for 2030. Germany wants to achieve climate neutrality as early as 2045. And cities like Stockholm and Vienna and federal states such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg have even planned to so by 2040.

One thing is clear: The majority of European truck and bus manufacturers fully support these goals. We too are convinced that we must stop climate change. And we too are of the opinion that we have no time to lose. We are therefore determined to do our part to make transport emission-free.

However, one other thing is also clear: To ensure these climate goals are more than just on paper -- and are achievable -- everyone involved must now pick up the pace. To do so, in both the political as well as business realms, we need to concentrate on emission-free transport technologies that are truly future-oriented. Only then can we use our resources and budgets as effectively as necessary.

Conversely, that means: We can’t allow ourselves to get bogged down and continue to pursue all possible development paths. Natural gas drives, for example, are not CO₂-free and are therefore just an expensive bridge technology. And overhead electric lines would require a comprehensive, Europe-wide infrastructure over thousands and thousands of kilometers. The associated planning processes would be highly complex, lengthy and fraught with great uncertainty. This technology is therefore impossible to implement as a practical matter. Rigid overhead lines would also deprive freight forwarders of what is so important to them in their daily transport jobs: Flexibility. Political decision-makers should therefore not invest any additional funds in expensive pilot programs. Time and money are precious and urgently needed elsewhere.

This brings me to the two technologies that are truly effective for emission-free transport - namely battery and fuel cell. Battery technology is now ready for volume series production and battery-electric trucks and buses are already in everyday use on our roads. The hydrogen-based fuel cell will be ready for volume series production in the next few years.

Both technologies are locally completely CO₂-neutral and complement each other perfectly - for two reasons. First, due to the highly varied uses of commercial vehicles, the rule of thumb is this: Batteries are better suited for lighter loads and shorter distances, and fuel cells for heavier loads and longer distances. Second, the requisite infrastructure also comes into play. Should the number of electric cars, trucks and buses grow even close to as rapidly as we all hope for in terms of sustainability; batteries alone will soon no longer be enough. They would overwhelm the electric infrastructure. We therefore need -- for the transport sector, as well as for other important industries -- an energy source with which we can store, distribute and import green solar or wind energy. That is exactly what hydrogen makes possible. In short: Hydrogen has the potential to replace crude oil as an internationally tradable, green energy storage medium. Europe needs a hydrogen economy.

I am fully aware that it is rather unusual for us, as manufacturers, to speak out so clearly in public in favor of a specific technology path. As a rule, companies and associations advocate openness to technologies. In other words, we tend to want to not set specifications and let the market decide on the success or failure of individual technologies. Of course, we could do the same in this case. Even in that case I remain certain the battery and fuel cell would prevail in the end. The problem with this approach is that it would cost time and money, and both are scarce.

In light of ambitious climate goals we must therefore concentrate on batteries and fuel cells for the transport sector from now on. The vast majority of European truck and bus manufacturers are already well on their way here. Now politicians must also commit. Only then can we bring both technologies to the mass market as quickly as possible. Yet vehicles with mature technologies alone are not enough. There is also a need for a regulatory framework to ensure CO₂-neutral trucks and buses become competitive with conventional vehicles. Above all, we need a comprehensive infrastructure. In contrast to overhead electric lines, it can be implemented - across Europe - but not overnight.

Commercial vehicle manufacturers have already launched a number of projects with energy companies to push infrastructure development. If everyone involved now concentrates on the truly pioneering battery and fuel cell technologies, we will make even faster progress in this area in the future.