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It’s VHS versus Betamax. It’s Playstation versus Dreamcast. It’s Blackberry versus iPhone.
Except it’s none of that: it’s batteries versus fuel cells.
For most of the market, this issue seems pretty well resolved, with battery electric vehicles (BEVs) dominating. Especially if you live in Los Angeles, you probably know someone who drives a Tesla, Rivian, Kia EV6, or even maybe a Nissan Leaf. Do you know anyone who drives a fuel cell electric vehicle? Have you seen any Honda Claritys on the road lately? Probably not. The same goes for medium and short range delivery vehicles of various sizes; Amazon is working with Rivian to electrify its fleet with BEVs as school buses increasingly rely on battery-electric technology.
But in long-haul trucking, things are a little different. When you have to move a lot of stuff a long distance, the power requirements are so much higher, which leaves the door open – maybe just a crack – for fuel cells. The California Air Resources Board Advanced clean truck rule requires 40% of all semi-trailer sales to be zero emissions by 2035, although it does not specify exactly how to achieve this.
In terms of cost, the two emerging technologies are far more expensive than their diesel predecessors: A report from the International Council on Clean Transportation estimates that a BEV truck will cost an average of around $240,000 by 2025, while a fuel cell electric truck is expected to cost just north of $300,000. Meanwhile, a diesel truck will cost you around $125,000. It’s a huge gamble for fleet owners trying to figure out which of these competing technologies will prevail, especially when both have their pros and cons.
Fuel cells, which use hydrogen gas to generate electricity that powers electric motors, offer enticing benefits, primarily fueling times similar to diesel or any other fossil fuel vehicle. Technology may also be able to provide greater range: Mercedes Benz’s GenH2 truck, planned for 2027, would have a range of up to 620 miles. By comparison, diesel-powered trucks typically have a range of around 800 km and take less time to refuel.
Batteries, on the other hand, are more efficient than fuel cells and have a (somewhat) more proven track record in automobiles, but require long and therefore expensive charging. So far, prototype electric tractor-trailers have typically achieved ranges on the order of 200-300 miles; both LA-based Xos and Portland-based Freightliner claim a maximum range of 230 miles on their BEV semis.
But what the BEVs lack in refueling (charging) speed, they make up for in their huge head start in infrastructure: America is already home to more than 40,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles. That’s still not nearly as much as we need to make a wholesale transition to electric vehicles – and certainly not enough of the faster Tier 3 kind that trucks would need – but compared to hydrogen refueling sites , it’s a veritable cornucopia of options. In 2020, there were a grand total of 43 retail hydrogen filling stations across the entire United States, with most concentrated in California alone, according to the Department of Energy. Shell and Chevron have expressed interest in building this type of hydrogen infrastructure in Europe and the United States, respectively, much to the chagrin of some analysts who see this decision as a way for oil companies to maintain their grip on the energy economy. While it’s probably a bad idea to bet against the oil industry’s ability to lobby governments and win contracts of this magnitude, there’s no denying that hydrogen infrastructure is catching up.
Unlike the big VHS versus Betamax debate, much of this battle will come down to how these technologies mature; it is unlikely, at this time, that DVD-like development will occur that will render fuel cells or BEVs obsolete, so it is incumbent upon them to continue to emerge and evolve to meet society’s transportation needs. Right now, it looks like it should be easier to improve batteries (via solid-state technology, better materials, and faster charging capabilities) than to build a nationwide hydrogen delivery system that only serves semi-trailers.
But if Betamax has taught us anything, it’s that superior technology isn’t necessarily the one that always wins. — David Shultz