Nikola updates electric semi truck plans with new hydrogen fuel cell tech

Is heavy-duty fuel cell trucking almost ready for prime time?

Nikola updates electric semi truck plans with new hydrogen fuel cell tech

Here’s what we know about hydrogen-powered fuel cells for heavy-duty trucking:

  • They are not in commercial production.
  • Onboard hydrogen storage is far less efficient than battery-powered trucks.
  • Heavy-duty truck fuel cell adoption is projected to be just 2.5% by 2030.
  • Battery-electric truck proponents call fuel cells unflattering names.

.None of that has changed. Yet, something seems different. 

For starters, car and truck makers and Tier 1 suppliers are investing billions of dollars in fuel cell technology.  

Blank check companies are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to target startup and growth-stage companies across the electric vehicle spectrum. Publicly traded fuel cell entities are riding double- and triple-digit growth in their share prices.

“I think there is significant momentum,” Chris Rovik, executive program manager of Toyota (NYSE: TM) North America’s Advanced Product Planning Office, told FreightWaves in an interview. “I think all the truck [manufacturers] realize they need to have zero-emission solutions. They’re starting to understand the benefits of fuel cells in certain use cases.”

Most agree that over-the-road trucking is the best use case. Lengthy stops to recharge a battery-electric truck eat into the total cost of ownership (TCO), the holy grail of fleet managers. And adding thousands of pounds of batteries for onboard energy reduces cargo capacity.

Tesla’s battery-electric range tease

So even as Elon Musk teases a 300- to 500-mile range in the still-future battery-electric (BEV) Tesla Semi, the trucking industry is fielding more demonstrations of what Musk has called “fool cells.” None are long-haul fuel cell demos yet. Absent a breakthrough in energy density, however, battery-powered trucks aren’t going long distances either.

“Range is really about how much space you take up on the truck,” said Preston Feight, CEO of PACCAR Inc. (NASDAQ: PCAR), which is working with Toyota. “The energy density at this point is higher for fuel cells. Both types of solutions need infrastructure development.”   

Toyota has developed 10 first-generation and two second-generation Kenworth T680 Class 8 fuel cell tractors. Five are being tested in drayage operations in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Port runs are the chosen test regimen for battery-electric truck demonstrations, too. Daimler Trucks’ Freightliner and Volvo Trucks both run demo programs in California.

The fuel cell stacks in the Kenworth trucks come from Toyota’s Mirai passenger sedan. They have proved reliable so far. As for hauling freight from the water’s edge to inland distribution centers, instead of long-haul routes, Toyota is simply going with what it knows.

A good starting point

As a vehicle importer to the West Coast for decades, Toyota has mature port operations and access to hydrogen fueling. 

“It seemed a good starting point,” Rovik said. “You’re not going to go out on a brand-new technology and start making 100,000 or 200,000 trucks a year. You’re going to start smaller and increase your scale as infrastructure sets in.”

Toyota introduced its Project Portal proof-of-concept fuel cell truck in 2017. It occupied the body of a Kenworth T660. A beta version appeared in 2019 and was the basis for the 10-truck Project Ocean demonstration fleet. 

Toyota’s Japanese subsidiary Hino Trucks plans to bring demo fuel cell conventional-body trucks to the U.S. this year. They, too, will rely on Mirai fuel cell stacks. 

“The whole point was to show we could use these stacks and systems in a light-duty vehicle and scale up from there,” Rovik said.

South Korean automaker Hyundai also plans to bring its Xcient fuel cell truck to California this year.

Dedicated routes

Most companies looking at fuel cells envision them running dedicated customer routes where hydrogen fueling is available. Startup Nikola Corp. (NASDAQ: NKLA) plans to build them as customers purchase fuel cell trucks for specific routes. Each onsite hydrogen production facility costs $17 million, according to Nikola investor documents.

Nikola recently got a deal from Arizona regulators for cheap electricity that will help it build its first hydrogen-producing station. It is intended for Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD) fuel cell trucks traveling regularly between a Van Nuys, California, brewery and a distributor in Chandler, Arizona. 

Another startup, Hyzon Motors, sees hydrogen fuel as a “behind-the-fence” operation for fleets that would return to base for refueling. 

Navistar International Corp. (NYSE: NAV) plans to use mobile hydrogen refueler OneH2 to bring hydrogen to J.B. Hunt Transport (NYSE: JBHT) trucks equipped with General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) Hydrotec fuel cell systems beginning around 2023. Toyota, GM’s fuel cell stacks are scaled up from the size needed for a light-duty vehicle.

Big investments

Major automotive suppliers are pouring money into fuel cells. German supplier Robert Bosch is helping Nikola develop its fuel cell system. It embedded more than 50 engineers to work alongside Nikola engineers.

“I think Bosch has invested over the last several years over 5 billion euros [$6 billion] in electrical powertrain including fuel cells,” Alex Freitag, director of diesel systems engineering, told FreightWaves. “This year alone, we’ll be spending approximately 700 million euros [$849.3 million] in developing further electric mobility.”

Freitag expects Bosch’s first fuel cell powertrains to be on the road in 2022 or 2023. “So, it’s no longer 10 years. I think, from our perspective, much less than that,” he said.

Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: DCRB) raised $570 million for Hyzon. That should lead to the spinoff of Singapore-based Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies being publicly listed in the second quarter. Volvo paid Daimler $700 million to become a joint venture partner in its fuel cell efforts.

California’s regulatory muscle

Toyota’s Rovik and Freitag agreed much of the impetus toward zero emissions is due to  stringent California emissions regulations that begin to impact sales of diesel trucks in 2024.

“Everybody’s focusing a lot on the BEV,” Freitag said. “It seems that on the Class 8 trucks, the fuel cell is preferred because of the refueling time and the range. Everything above 500 miles will be more suited for a fuel cell than a [BEV].”

Not necessarily, said Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency.

“The costs of hydrogen, vehicles and hydrogen production all must come down significantly to make hydrogen economically competitive with alternatives,” Roeth said.

A downside of pursuing parallel electric vehicle strategies is creating separate infrastructures for charging and hydrogen fueling. Both are expensive. But location is critical, Freitag said.

Multiple uses

Bosch, Cummins Inc. (NYSE: CMI), and even Daimler and Volvo Group see fuel cells being used as backup power for data centers and other installations. Working with Ceres Power Co. of the United Kingdom, Bosch aims to produce 200 megawatts of electricity from solid oxide fuel cells by 2024. That is enough to supply power to some 400,000 homes, Bosch said.

Fuel cells used in transportation typically depend on proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology. Cummins has the largest hydrogen-making PEM electrolyzer in the world. It is working on the first fuel cell-powered zero-emissions commercial ferry in North America. And It has supplied fuel cells for buses in Asia and to rail giant Alstom for use in passenger trains in Austria.

“While hydrogen fuel cell technology is very promising, we know that widespread adoption will take time,” said Amy Davis, president of Cummins’ New Power unit.

“It’s always 10 years away,” said Arshad Mansoor, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute. “Even 50 years ago, it was 10 years away.”

So, maybe prime time for fuel cells will be a longer wait after all.

Toyota equips Kenworth Class 8 truck with updated fuel cell

Navistar, GM and J.B. Hunt collaborate on fuel cell trucks

Hyzon Motors to get $570M from SPAC backing fuel cell technology

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.


GM Enters The Fuel Cell Business, Will Power Navistar Trucks

Nikola updates electric semi truck plans with new hydrogen fuel cell tech
General Motors will produce fuel cells for truck-maker Navistar. General Motors

General Motors as part of its plan to be a carbon-neutral company with an “all-electric future” in 20 years, announced this week it will supply fuel cells to Navistar, a leading maker of big trucks. 

Each module, called a Hydrotec power cube by GM, 80 kilowatts of power, roughly 110 horsepower, and several would be used in a big truck.

They could also be used, GM says, in railroad locomotives, port equipment, airport ground equipment, power generators, even submarines.

 Long-haul tractor-trailers could travel more than 1,000 miles, meaning a coast to coast run would need just two fill-ups.

Separately, GM Thursday said it will phase out gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2035 and the company will be carbon-neutral by 2040.

General Motors Hydrotec fuel cell, or “power cube.” Each module produces 80 kilowatts or about 107 horsepower. Multiple units would go in a typical truck. General Motors

GM Joins Honda, Hyundai, Toyota in Push to Fuel Cells

While GM’s plan to go all-electric will rely primarily on battery technology, there is growing interest in hydrogen power, especially by established manufacturers Hyundai and Toyota, as well as start-ups such as Nikola Corp., since fuel-cells offer a number of potential advantage for use in heavy-duty trucks, starting with longer range.

“Hydrogen fuel cells offer great promise for heavy-duty trucks in applications requiring a higher density of energy, fast refueling and additional range,” Navistar Chief Executive Persio Lisboa said this week as he announced plans to bring the new International RH Series of fuel-cell trucks to market during the 2024 model-year.

Welsh physicist William Grove came up with the basic concept of the fuel-cell back in 1838, though it would be another century before a practical version was demonstrated. The technology was critical for the Apollo lunar program, providing power for the manned space capsules during their journey to the moon.

Fuel stack assembly. GM will deliver finished power cubes to Navistar for testing next year by big freight hauler J.B. Hunt, will all-customer deliveries in 2024, GM says. General Motors

How a Fuel Cell Works: Combine Hydrogen, Oxygen

At their most basic, fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen through a permeable membrane coated with rare metals, such as platinum.

The process creates a flow of current and water vapor as the only exhaust.

That energy can be used to power the same sort of electric motor configuration found in a battery-electric vehicle –which is why the technology is often referred to as a refillable battery.

Automakers have been tinkering with the technology for decades and a handful of fuel-cell vehicles are now on the road, including the recently updated Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. But proponents see hydrogen as a particularly viable alternative for heavy duty trucks, especially those traveling long distances.

Navistar expects the RH Series rigs will get about 500 miles between 15-minute fill-ups while Phoenix-based start-up Nikola is looking for range of as much as 1,200 miles for Class-7 and Class-8 trucks such as the Nikola One it plans to put into production in several years. Range depends mainly on how many hydrogen tanks are in the truck.

Navistar, Nikola is partnering with GM, which will supply it with hydrogen technology developed as part of a joint venture with Honda. The Japanese automaker uses a fuel-cell driveline in a version of its Clarity sedan. A Nikola-GM partnership was scaled back in the wake of concerns last year about Nikola’s credibility; GM may still supply Nikola with fuel cells.

Toyota Fuel Cell Haulers at LA, Long Beach Ports

Honda’s Japanese arch-rival Toyota is another manufacturer betting big on hydrogen power. In December it put two heavy-duty prototypes, the Kenworth T680 truck, into service at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The facilities have become major sources of pollution and regulators are hoping to find clean alternatives, both battery and hydrogen-based.

“Moving toward emissions-free trucks is more important than ever, and (this) project has been instrumental in getting us closer to that goal,” said Toyota’s North American R&D chief Andrew Lund.

The industry giant already has plans to take things further, announcing last October plans to develop a “demonstration vehicle” in partnership with Japanese truck manufacturer Hino. It is expected to go into service later in 2021.

Hyundai HDC-6 Neptune concept truck uses fuel cell modules and electric motors. Adding more cylindrical hydrogen tanks pushes range past 1,000 miles. A run from the Port of Los Angeles to New Jersey freight terminals would require stops only in Colorado and Illinois. (The concept truck incorporates a bathroom, including a shower.) Hyundai

Hyundai Fuel Cell Pilot Project in Switzerland

Hyundai, meanwhile, unveiled its own hydrogen-powered truck concept, the HDC-6 Neptune, in 2019 and last year started fuel cell trucks into a pilot program in Switzerland. It hopes to commercialize the technology in North America starting in 2022, it said. And it aims to find additional applications that could include boats and trains through its new HTWO subsidiary.

“Not only will the next-generation fuel cell system be available for many different mobility products and services, it will deliver enhanced performance and durability at an affordable price in a lighter architecture with enhanced energy density,” the Hyundai Motor Group said in a statement last month.

GM spec sheet for a Hydrotec fuel cell module, or power cube. General Motors

Drawbacks: Costly Fuel Cell Stacks, Creating Pure Hydrogen 

There are some drawbacks yet to be overcome. Engineers have been working to lower costs by reducing the amount of rare metals, such as platinum, needed in a fuel-cell “stack,” while increasing energy output.

The biggest challenge, however, is finding the fuel. While hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it is not found in free form on Planet Earth and must be coaxed different compounds, whether water or hydrocarbons, through processes electrolysis.

That leads skeptics to dismiss the technology because of the energy requirements to produce hydrogen — Tesla CEO Elon Musk derisively calling them “fool cells.”

Fuel Cell Stations Mostly in California

Distribution is the other problem. Even compared to public battery charging, hydrogen pumps are rare, with less than 100 available in California, one of the few markets where fuel-cell vehicles, or FCVs, are currently available.

The state has set aside funds to expand the network. Meanwhile, some of the companies looking to enter the market are laying out plans of their own. Nikola, in particular, says it intends to set up hydrogen stations along key trucking routes to support the trucks it plans to bring to market.

There is “a tremendous opportunity” to get the technology into production, said Jackie Birdsall, the head of Toyota’s fuel-cell effort, adding that the demand for clean, hydrogen-powered trucks could justify setting up a distribution network that would also make fuel-cell passenger vehicles more appealing.


Hyundai, Nikola and Toyota Start to Build Hydrogen Highway |

Nikola updates electric semi truck plans with new hydrogen fuel cell tech

Hyundai Motor Co. has an ambitious plan to wean the global trucking industry from fossil fuels by creating green commercial trucks with the same power and range as their diesel counterparts.

The South Korean automaker unveiled the cornerstone of its strategy in Atlanta last month by showing the concept of its planned HDC-6 Neptune hydrogen fuel cell truck. Styled a 1930s Art Deco steam locomotive, the truck could be plying U.S. highways by 2024.

Human-caused climate change dictates the end of diesel trucks, said Sae Hoon Kim, vice president of Hyundai’s fuel cell center.

Sae Hoon Kim

“This is about survival, and we don’t have that much time to make this move,” Kim told


Hyundai plans to build a production capacity of 500,000 fuel cell systems for passenger and commercial vehicles by 2030 at a cost of about $6.4 billion.

While fossil fuel will be the primary energy choice for both passenger cars and commercial vehicles in the U.S. for years to come, other nations are already working to decarbonize transport.

Hyundai’s HDC-6 Neptune fuel cell truck could be traveling U.S. highways by 2024. (Photo: Hyundai)

More than half of Norway’s new vehicle sales are electric cars. Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, London and Rome all are preparing to ban either diesel or all internal combustion vehicles from their city centers over the next decade. Amsterdam wants to allow only emission-free vehicles by 2030.

Hyundai and a handful of rivals believe these diesel bans will provide the impetus for hydrogen commercial truck development.


Other truck and car companies also see hydrogen as a fuel of choice for transport.

Nikola Motor Co., a Phoenix startup, plans highway testing of its hydrogen fuel cell semi-tractor next year. Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch will test Nikola trucks in its fleet. The beer company said it plans to buy up to 800 of the hydrogen fuel cell models for its fleet of long-haul delivery vehicles.

Anheuser-Busch has said it plans to buy 800 Nikola fuel cell trucks. (Photo: Nikola)

Nikola also wants to remove risk from its customers. It will combine the major expenses of truck ownership and operation into a single monthly lease payment. But that deal requires a million-mile lease at the cost of 95 cents per mile, or $950,000 for the life of the contract – typically seven years.


Toyota Motor Corp., which makes the Mirai hydrogen fuel cell passenger car, also is developing commercial vehicles. It is providing fuel cell electric powertrains for a project with truck builder Kenworth. They are building 10 zero-emission Class 8 trucks.

The project is part of a $41 million Zero and Near-Zero Emissions Freight Facilities grant from the California Air Resources Board. The vehicles will be used at the Port of Los Angeles/Port of Long Beach complex, primarily moving containers to and from California’s Inland Empire region about 70 miles away.

It is also testing a hydrogen fuel cell yard truck to move shipping containers within the Port of Los Angeles.

Even parcel giant UPS is dabbling in the field. It is developing a small fleet of hydrogen fuel cell delivery trucks. It wants 40 percent of the fuel it uses to come from sources other than conventional gasoline and diesel by 2025.

Kenworth General Manager Mike Dozier, left, and Carlton Rose, president of United Parcel Service global fleet maintenance and engineering, unveiled a fuel cell truck developed by Toyota and Kenworth at the 2019 Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach. (Photo: Alan Adler/


Companies are interested in hydrogen fuel cells because the technology could work well for freight and logistics, Antti Lindstrom, an analyst with IHS Markit, told

The fuel cell stack works a mini power plant, converting hydrogen to electricity that can run the trucks. Drivers can fuel their vehicles almost as quickly as they can with diesel. The system is lighter than the power supply for a similar battery-electric truck.

“But without infrastructure, this is just an interesting technical experiment,” Lindstrom said.

Trucking companies won’t want to invest in hydrogen vehicles unless they know there will be places to get the fuel. Fueling companies don’t want to invest in stations if there are no trucks on the road.

“It is a chicken or the egg example,” Lindstrom said.

Hyundai believes it can solve the problem.


Its first commercial venture is in Switzerland. It has a joint venture to use 1,600 hydrogen fuel cell trucks to transport goods for Coop and Migros, Switzerland’s two largest retailers.

The vehicle will have a range of about 190 miles and will tow a 32,000-pound trailer. The trucks will get their power by pairing two of the 95-kilowatt fuel cell stacks Hyundai uses in its Nexo SUV. Deliveries start next year.

All the trucks will be in operation by 2025, according to Maik Ziegler, Hyundai’s fuel cell EV vice president.

In Switzerland, Hyundai fuel cell trucks will be powered by two of the 95-kilowatt fuel cell stacks the automaker uses in its Nexo SUV. (Photo: Hyundai)

An unusual road tax in Switzerland created a business case for producing the trucks and investing in a hydrogen fuel infrastructure, Ziegler said. Green vehicles are exempt from a Swiss tax on commercial vehicles that works out to about $1 per kilometer traveled.

It takes about 10 daily truck customers to create enough business to pay for a filling station, Ziegler said. That compares to about 200 passenger cars. When all the trucks are on the road, Switzerland will have a network of more than 150 hydrogen stations.


Hyundai plans to offer the trucks in a pay-per-use model. It’s similar to an experiment Volvo Trucks is running with mine operators for autonomous trucking. Driverless Volvo trucks move rock from a mine to a port in Norway. The truck company gets paid by the load.

Volvo has six autonomous trucks operating in a mine in Norway. (Photo: Volvo)

Such plans make sense for new technology, Ziegler said. They remove customer questions about the operating expense and resale value of new technology.

The strategy also is a way for the automaker to market its trucks against the battery-electric vehicles that will be its main rivals for green shipping. Hyundai is confident that hydrogen is a better way to store energy than batteries.


A truck in the heaviest Class 8 truck weight segment requires about 8 tons of batteries to have a 311-mile range, Kim said. A hydrogen system – including the fuel cell stack and tanks – weighs about 1.5 tons.

“It will have less weight so you can put more cargo on the truck,” he said. That translates into higher profits.

Since refueling takes about the same amount of time as filling a diesel truck – much shorter than charging batteries – savings can be seen with faster delivery times.


Still, there are significant hurdles. One is infrastructure. But Ziegler said commercial contracts for hydrogen fuel cell trucks would pay to build that out. Nikola has the same belief. By default, the commercial market also creates a fueling network for hydrogen passenger cars.

The hydrogen also has to be produced using renewable systems, such as solar energy, or there is no environmental benefit, Kim said. Hyundai has a partnership with H2 Energy to build a supply chain for renewable hydrogen in Europe.

Hyundai believes fuel cell technology has applications beyond trucks and passenger cars.

“We are now developing buses, trams and small trains. We have some government development work for boats and shipping,” Kim said. “A fuel cell is simply a power generator, and there can be many uses.”


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