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Two lanes into the future

20.10.2023 | CEO News

As "A voice from the business world," Martin Daum writes in his guest article for Fraunhofer magazine about why the commercial vehicles of the future will need not only batteries, but also hydrogen.

It was not only at the IAA Mobility trade fair in September that many conversations revolved around the topic of batteries. Battery-powered propulsion is the number-one technological option for making automotive traffic emission-free. However, trucks are not just big cars.

The commercial vehicles of the future will not only need batteries - they also need hydrogen. At Daimler Truck, we are convinced that the commercial vehicles of the future will need not only batteries, but also hydrogen. A few months ago, we therefore signed a memorandum of understanding with Toyota Motor Corporation. In addition to a planned merger of our Japanese commercial vehicle subsidiaries, this also involves cooperation on hydrogen drives. In addition, we already established the cellcentric joint venture with the Volvo Group in 2021 to build one of the largest production facilities for fuel cells in Europe.

So unlike our colleagues in the passenger car sector, we are not pursuing a single-track technology strategy for commercial vehicles, but a two-track one - and we have good reasons for this.

Firstly, trucks are not large passenger cars. They are capital goods. Our customers have to be able to earn money with our products. They therefore pay very close attention to costs. And not just to the acquisition costs, but above all to the total costs over the lifetime of a truck.

Today, these total costs depend heavily on the price of diesel - and tomorrow on the price of electricity and hydrogen. Depending on how these prices develop, it will be more rewarding for commercial vehicle customers to opt for a battery drive or for a fuel cell drive. Energy prices will have a major impact on the purchase decision, especially for long-haul trucks and buses. However, their future level cannot be predicted - and thus also the future mix of battery and fuel cell vehicles. This means that those who do not develop hydrogen drives today will be left out of a potentially booming market for hydrogen models tomorrow.

There is one more aspect. In addition to fuel cells, there is another hydrogen drive: the hydrogen combustion engine. This technology is a good CO2-free alternative for vocational trucks, such as dump trucks, which require significantly more energy for their bodies than for pure driving. We are therefore following the current discussion on the hydrogen combustion engine very closely. If this concept is supported politically for good reasons, we will be well prepared and will quickly be able to offer suitable series vehicles.

A second reason for our dual strategy is infrastructure. A few facts illustrate what it would mean if zero-emission trucks were to run exclusively on batteries in the future. In that case, every highway service station would need to have between 20 and 50 charging stations. And each charging station would have to be equipped for megawatt charging. In other words, each rest stop would have the energy requirements of a small town.

Such a charging infrastructure exists only in the conditional tense. It is simply not realistic to provide public charging capacity on this scale throughout the country. That would hopelessly overburden the expansion of the power grid. For this reason alone, we will also need hydrogen for trucks in the future - in addition to batteries.

What's more, the consulting firm McKinsey found in a study that, in terms of costs, it is cheaper to build not just one infrastructure, but two. Intuitively, one might expect a different result. But scaling one infrastructure for batteries only to an extreme volume is more expensive than scaling two infrastructures – one for batteries and one for hydrogen – to a medium volume.

The third reason refers to the energy needs of our continent. To make Europe sustainable, we need to completely replace energy produced from fossil fuels with green energy. This involves such enormous quantities that we cannot generate them in Europe, which has relatively little sunshine. The good news is that there is more than enough green energy available worldwide: Every day, 15 times as much solar energy hits the Earth's land mass as we consume globally in an entire year. All we have to do is capture it and transport it to where it is needed. However, this requires a carbon-free energy carrier that can be traded worldwide - and we are back to hydrogen. 

So we can conclude: Tomorrow's sustainable economy requires the development of a hydrogen economy - and there are good reasons to use this energy carrier for trucks and buses as well. Commercial vehicle manufacturers are therefore best off taking a dual-track approach to the future.