Could fuel cell conversions help clean long-haul diesel trucks?

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In addition to building new zero-emission trucks, what if older diesel trucks were converted to power from hydrogen fuel cells? Two such initiatives were announced earlier this week.

Daimler Truck North America and diesel engine maker Cummins will upgrade older Daimler-built Freightliner Cascadia semi-trucks with Cummins-supplied fuel cell powertrains, the two companies announced Wednesday.

The companies plan to have the first trucks ready by 2024. By then, Daimler also hopes to have ramped up production of the eCascadia electric batterywhich was unveiled in production-ready form on the same day as the fuel cell announcement.

Freightliner Cascadia Semi Trailer

Freightliner Cascadia Semi Trailer

Startup Hyzon Motors is launching its own fuel cell conversion program as a way to get cleaner trucks on the road faster. The company said in a press release that due to supply chain issues, the current lead time for a new truck chassis is up to 16 months. Conversion of existing chassis provides a shortcut.

Hyzon plans to offer 110 kW and 200 kW fuel cell stacks. He said examples of the latter will begin testing in late 2022, with a commercial launch after that. The batteries will be manufactured at Hyzon’s factory in Illinois.

Hyzon Motors Hydrogen Fuel Cell Stack

Hyzon Motors Hydrogen Fuel Cell Stack

Other companies have expressed interest in building new fuel cell trucks. In 2021, General Motors and Navistar announced plans to build 2,000 fuel cell semi-trailers “in the near future.” Toyota and Kenworth have been demonstrating Prototypes of “Project Portal” in hauling service at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for a few years now.

Perhaps the most ambitious is the California Fuel Cell Partnership trade group, which plans to put 70,000 fuel cell trucks on the road by 2035, supported by 200 newly built hydrogen stations.

But while commercial trucks are seen as a more viable option for fuel cells than passenger cars at the moment, it’s possible that even that the window of opportunity is closing. Battery electric vehicles are likely to have enough range for all but long-haul applications, a recent analysis claims, leaving fuel cell trucks a narrow niche.

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