Truck of the Future: 5 takeaways from a CERAWeek discussion

HOUSTON — The roughly 9,000 attendees at the CERAWeek energy conference had a multitude of presentations about transitioning to new forms of energy and away from hydrocarbons. But only one focused on the future of trucking.

Three executives from diverse trucking industry backgrounds answered questions from Greg Genette of S&P Global Mobility at a panel titled “Truck of the Future.” S&P Global (NYSE: SPGI) is the producer of CERAWeek.

Here are some key points from the roughly half-hour discussion.

— Hydrogen in transport has often been thought of primarily as a fuel to power a fuel cell, where the energy in the hydrogen is transformed into electricity to power an electric motor. But combustion of hydrogen is still on the agenda as a possible transport solution.

“Combustion engine-powered vehicles, at least from the initial cost perspective, have an opportunity,” Rakesh Aneja, vice president and chief of the zero-emission transformation group at Daimler Truck North America, said about the future of hydrogen. Given that there aren’t enormous changes needed in the drivetrain for a hydrogen internal combustion engine, Aneja said the key issue will be the development of hydrogen tanks and delivery systems that will be on board the vehicle. Hydrogen molecules are “tricky,” Aneja said, “and there certainly are some development challenges to be overcome. But the power train is more or less similar and the additional cost comes from the hydrogen tank system and the delivery of it.”

The assumption in the CERAWeek discussion was that the hydrogen would be delivered as its own molecule. Discussion of using hydrogen for propulsion in the form of ammonia did not come up, but combusting ammonia to produce energy from hydrogen creates significant nitrous oxide emissions. Ammonia is a combination of hydrogen and nitrogen.

Mohammad Fatouraie, the director of engineering for power solutions at Robert Bosch, which makes power systems such as fuel cells, noted that hydrogen combustion does not qualify as a zero-emission vehicle under the California Advanced Clean Fleets rule. That would mean that hydrogen processed through a fuel cell would need to be utilized to propel a truck using the element.

— Any discussion on the future of trucking deals not only with fuel but also with autonomous vehicles. The panel gave Aneja the opportunity to speak about the recent joint venture between Daimler Truck and the various brands of Traton, including Navistar.

“If we tried to deploy commercial development of our level four autonomous solution on scale, we need to have tight integration with the OEMs on a serious production level,” Aneja said. “Beyond that, we need to make sure we can also provide testing and validation on the autonomous operations with fleet operators.”

The cooperation agreement with Traton, a division of Volkswagen, is expected to make it possible to bring autonomous vehicles into the market “at an accelerated pace,” Aneja said. It will allow deployment “as soon as we can actually convince the fleet operators with our autonomous operations,” he added.

—Navistar and its recent news regarding autonomous vehicles also was in the background in comments by David Roh, the director of business development at autonomous truck manufacturer Plus. It recently announced a joint venture between Plus and Navistar to test autonomous vehicles in Texas.

Roh didn’t address the Navistar deal directly. But he discussed the potential for trucking using autonomous vehicles to grab market share from what he called “other modes of transport, such as carbon-intensive air transport.”

If “everything goes smoothly” with autonomous vehicles, Roh said, a cross-country truck trip can be taken in two days. At that point, it’s competitive with airfreight. “We’re essentially looking at a scenario where a fleet is the most efficient.” He described that as “awesome.” 

— There was no definitive “hydrogen is the future of trucking” declaration. Part of that was due to the fact that the discussion at CERAWeek was not just about Class 8 tractors, in which a battery-powered future is considered unlikely due to weight and the length of time needed to recharge a truck for time-stressed drivers. Aneja said hydrogen has a “complementary” role to play “with respect to propulsion technology.”

“We are evaluating and developing both fuel-cell vehicles and hydrogen combustion engines as well,” the Daimler executive said.

Fatouraie said individual situations may necessitate individual solutions. For example, he noted that the operating temperature of a fuel cell is about 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit). Operating a fuel cell in weather conditions like “summer in Texas,” which was his example, creates efficiency issues. That is where “hybridization” can come in, in which a battery system on board the vehicle can be called on to provide power when conditions might not be optimal for fuel cells.

“So it is really going to depend on the use cases, the applications and the choice of the overall power,” Fatouraie said.

— While some of the discussions about an energy future at CERAWeek have long timelines, Bosch’s Fatouraie said 2027 is an “inflection point” in the pace of electrifying light-duty vehicles. He did not specifically define “inflection point” but suggested that by that time, there will be clarity on a variety of issues, including the state of infrastructure for refueling and the “total cost of ownership,” a factor in determining the success of alternative fuels that includes such things as the savings on fuel and maintenance and the impact of tax considerations.

Leading up to 2027, Fatouraie said there will be resolutions to questions of electrification versus hydrogen, infrastructure improvements, and the deployment of pilot programs to prove out the pathways that will succeed.

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