Daimler Truck, the world's leading truck manufacturer, made a show of strength this week by driving its "GenH1" prototype 047,2 kilometers.

Between the group's plant in Wörth am Rhein, near the French border and the German capital, the vehicle made the journey with a single charge of hydrogen, a record autonomy, according to the German manufacturer.

But before road transport is converted to this technology, there are still many obstacles, between lack of infrastructure, hydrogen resources, costs and technical challenges.

Battery or battery?

Series production is expected for "the second half of the decade," says Andreas Gorbach, head of truck technology at Daimler Truck.

Several conditions must be met, he acknowledges: "the first is the infrastructure of hydrogen charging stations, the second is economic viability for our customers thanks to the availability of green energy at a competitive cost".

A prototype of Daimler Truck's hydrogen-powered GenH2 truck arrives in Berlin after traveling 1,047 kilometers, September 26, 2023 © John MACDOUGALL / AFP

The hydrogen fuel cell has a reduced environmental impact, emitting only water vapor when the diesel used by heavy goods vehicles pollutes massively. It is still necessary that it is green hydrogen - produced from renewable energies - whose production is currently marginal.

The development of hydrogen trucks is thus less advanced than that of battery-powered trucks, of which Daimler, as well as the Swedish Volvo, already manufacture copies.

From the point of view of the German manufacturer, the two technologies are complementary.

The production of "green" © hydrogen Tatiana MAGARINOS / AFP/Archives

Advantage to batteries for lighter charges and short distances, while hydrogen would be reserved for long distances and offers a much shorter recharge time.

"To decarbonise transport, we will need both," Gorbach said.

Price Wall

European manufacturers are under pressure due to tougher standards, even if the targets are less stringent than for passenger cars.

A 2019 European Commission regulation requires a 30% reduction in pollutant emissions from trucks by 2030. A new proposal suggests achieving a 90% reduction, compared to 2019 levels, for new trucks in 2040.

A prototype of Daimler Truck's hydrogen-powered GenH2 truck arrives in Berlin after traveling 1,047 kilometers, September 26, 2023 © John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Added to this is competition from international manufacturers, such as Tesla or the Chinese manufacturer BYD, also engaged in the electric conversion of trucks: European manufacturers "could lose 11% of the market share of heavy trucks by 2035" on the Old Continent if they do not green their ranges quickly enough, according to a recent study by the European Federation for Transport and the Environment (T&E).

The American start-up Nikola, a customer of the German equipment manufacturer Bosch, has already begun mass production of its hydrogen heavy-duty model across the Atlantic, taking advantage of public subsidies for purchase under the Biden administration's Inflation Reduction Act. In August, it claimed a total of 202 orders placed by 18 customers.

Hydrogen will only make a breakthrough if its costs come down, experts warn.

For now, Daimler Truck estimates the cost of its battery-electric models at around 2.5 times that of an equivalent diesel model.

Regarding hydrogen, it is impossible to do the calculation because the charging infrastructures are... Nonexistent.

Daimler has teamed up with several truck manufacturers and energy suppliers (Shell, BP, Total) in Europe and North America to develop a network of hydrogen charging stations.

The network should materialize "at the end of the decade," says Rainer Müller, manager at Mercedes Benz Trucks, one of the brands of the Daimler group, which aims for a cost of use of hydrogen truck "similar" to that of a diesel truck.

But others are less optimistic. According to T&E's projections, hydrogen will only be competitive from 2040 onwards and under certain conditions.

© 2023 AFP