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A revolution in drives for commercial vehicles

The lorry of the future: battery or hydrogen?

Freight traffic on the roads is a huge problem for the climate. Given the ever increasing flow of goods, it needs to be rapidly decarbonised. But what will the drive of the CO2-neutral future be – battery or hydrogen fuel cell?

According to estimates by the Federal Environmental Agency, one 40-tonne lorry emits almost seven tonnes of CO2 on one tank of fuel, around as much as a person in Germany does in a whole year. The carbon footprint of lorries is also poor even in comparison to cars. Given their higher total weight and annual mileage, emissions are around 50 times greater per vehicle. The European Union (EU) has therefore set its member states an ambitious target: to reduce the CO2 emissions of heavy goods vehicles by 30 per cent by 2030.

This means that by then, around 200,000 emission-free lorries will have to be on Europe’s roads. Currently this figure is approximately a mere 2,300 according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA). This means that less than 0.1 per cent of medium and heavy goods vehicles in Europe have a climate-friendly drive system. A drop in the ocean.

Given the environmental urgency on the one hand and ever increasing flows of goods, plus the growth in e-commerce and the establishment of environmental zones on the other hand, we need to urgently decarbonise freight traffic on the roads. Experts from the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure e. V. (VDI) (Association of German Engineers) and the Verband der Elektrotechnik Elektronik Informationstechnik e. V. (VDE) (Association for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies) explain how to make the transformation a success in their January 2022 study ‘Climate-friendly commercial vehicles’. ‘Our results show that there are three main prerequisites for climate-friendly commercial vehicles to be accepted in the long term. The most important of these is economic viability. Acceptance of these vehicles is also dependent on whether the user can retain the usage options they are accustomed to with conventional drives. And last but not least, the necessary infrastructure must be in place’, explains Martin Pokojski, head of the expert committee ‘Hydrogen and fuel cells’ at the VDE/VDI.

‘Economic viability, user-friendliness and infrastructure are the decisive factors when it comes to the acceptance of climate-friendly commercial vehicles.’

Martin Pokojski, head of the expert committee ‘Hydrogen and fuel cells’, VDE/VDI

Electric battery or fuel cell?

The study focuses on batteries and fuel cells. After all, it is still unclear how diesel can be replaced. There is hardly any other issue that is currently preoccupying automotive industry as much as deciding what the best drive system for a climate-neutral future is. While manufacturers such as Volvo Trucks, Hyundai and Toyota are focusing their efforts on hydrogen, Tesla and VW subsidiary Scania, for example, are concentrating on the electric battery. There is currently a lot of movement in the industry as both manufacturers and suppliers know that quick, concrete solutions are needed.

The Traton Group, for example, which is one of the leading international commercial vehicle manufacturers with brands such as MAN and RIO, will invest a total of 2.6 billion euros in research and development for e-mobility by 2026, reducing the budget for conventional drives by a comparable amount. The group has a clear focus on electric battery drives, including for long distances. Renault Trucks and GEODIS are currently developing an electric 16-tonne lorry to be used for freight transport in inner cities. Supplier Bosch, by contrast, has been focusing on fuel cell technology for some time now and together with Chinese lorry manufacturer Qingling, it founded the joint venture Bosch Hydrogen Powertrain Systems that aims to mass produce lorries with fuel cell drive systems in the near future. This is a smart move as China plays the leading global role in the field of alternative drive systems and is one of the most important growth markets. According to calculations by the China Society of Automotive Engineers (China-SAE), fuel cell vehicles have a market potential of one million units by 2030 in China.

‘It won’t come down to just one technology’, predicts Martin Pokojski. ‘For short and medium distances, particularly in the city, there is huge potential for battery-driven vehicles. For longer distances and higher loads, we are placing our faith more in hydrogen-based drive systems. It’s important to know what the market needs’. Fleet operators have varying requirements. In urban traffic with short distances, the range is barely an issue regardless of the technology used. It is different for heavy goods transport, i.e. 40 tonnes and above. In this case, vehicles with conventional drives can manage around 1500 kilometres on one tank of fuel. This is still possible with new technologies, but there are limitations. A battery offering this kind of range is so heavy that it would significantly reduce the load that could be carried. With hydrogen, which is normally transported as a gas under high pressure, the tank weighs less, but needs a lot more space and so also reduces the load that can be carried.

Zero emissions across the board

Daimler Truck is pursuing a dual strategy and aims to offer only zero emission technology across the board by 2039. ‘The combination of battery electric and hydrogen-based drives enables optimal transport solutions for all areas of application’, says Dr Andreas Gorbach, member of the board at Daimler Truck and Head of Truck Technology. ‘There will always be discussions about individual aspects of various alternative drive forms, such as energy efficiency. And that is much more the case when it comes to battery electric versus hydrogen-based drives, but it does mean that you can lose sight of the big picture. For successful conversion to zero emission technology, the key is not only efficiency, but also primarily the availability of the relevant infrastructure, as well as sufficient green energy. We’re convinced that the only way to meet these energy needs in a speedy and cost-optimised way is to take advantage of both technologies’.

‘The combination of battery electric and hydrogen-based drives enables optimal transport solutions for all areas of application.’

Dr. Andreas Gorbach (Photo: Daimler Truck AG)

The first battery electric vehicles were rolling off the production line at Daimler Trucks back in 2018 in the form of the Mercedes-Benz eCitaro. The Mercedes-Benz eActros have been mass produced for heavy distribution transport since 2021, and further lorries will follow later this year. On the hydrogen side, a prototype is already being tested on the road. Start of production is planned for the second half of the decade. Together with the Volvo Group, Daimler Truck also founded the joint venture cellcentric last year, which aims to become one of the biggest mass producers of fuel cell systems in Europe from 2026. And with Linde, Daimler Truck is developing a feasible liquid hydrogen fuelling technology for fuel cell lorries.

The cost argument is key

Which technology will have the leading edge is something that will be determined primarily by the costs. ‘In the commercial vehicle segment, cost viability is determined by margins of mere cents. This is why the cost argument is key from the user’s point of view’, says Pokojski. Thanks to optimisation and mass production, batteries in particular are showing a high cost degression effect. Similar can be expected for fuel cells. ‘The discussions we have had with industry players indicate that the costs of battery and fuel-cell driven vehicles will be comparable in the future’, says Pokojski. The supply of energy also plays a major role. As soon as hydrogen becomes an established commodity, the purchasing conditions could be so low that they will be on a competitive scale. Daimler Truck has a similar viewpoint: ‘We assume that green hydrogen will be traded at very attractive prices in future. We also see advantages in terms of costs and the technical feasibility of the hydrogen infrastructure’, says Dr Gorbach.

After all, when it comes to infrastructure in particular, the VDI/VDE study highlighted clear deficits, both in terms of electric charging points as well as hydrogen filling stations. According to the Federal Network Agency, there are more than 55,000 charging points registered for cars in Germany, but just 25 of them are suitable for lorries. ‘When we think about infrastructure, we need to focus on the requirements of commercial vehicles’, says Pokojski. ‘When a lorry is filled up with diesel, 150 litres of fuel a minute flows through the nozzle. No charging station or hydrogen filling station can achieve that. In short: there are not enough suitable refuelling points for either battery or fuel cell vehicles’. According to a 2020 working paper by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI, to even cover half the demand for electric charging stations, there needs to be at least a network of 260 charging points offering 350 kilowatts of charging capacity in Germany. With hydrogen, at least 140 filling stations would be needed. Daimler Truck is also investing here: in collaboration with companies such as Shell, BP and TotalEnergies, the manufacturer wants to establish the infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations along important transport routes in Europe.

E-fuels, overhead lines, photovoltaics etc.

Everyone is talking about what the right drive is. But are batteries and fuel cells really the only solutions? After all, there are also other smart solutions on offer. For example, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has developed a lorry together with industrial partners and the Fraunhofer Institute for Transportation and Infrastructure Systems IVI that can produce its own electricity thanks to a photovoltaic unit installed on its roof. The 18-tonne lorry is currently being tested on Germany’s roads. An elegant and efficient solution is lorries and buses with overhead electric wires. The problem? They need a completely new infrastructure and the expenditure cannot really be justified. Another very promising alternative is synthetic fuels from renewable energy. So-called e-fuels are manufactured from water and carbon dioxide using electricity. The advantage? They can use the existing structures in place for the combustion engine when it comes to transport, storage and use. But the disadvantage is that there is a long process chain and each manufacturing step results in loss of energy.

According to Pokojski, batteries and fuel cells remain the most promising solutions for climate-friendly freight transport. And the solutions need to come quickly, he says: ‘We need to increase the proportion of climate-friendly drives a hundredfold within less than ten years. This means that we need to convert earlier and on a much greater scale. If this were the case, hydroelectric and battery electric drives could cover almost the entire market for freight transport in the future. But for this to happen, we need to create the relevant conditions and infrastructure now!’

Voices from the sector

Dr Christian Schiller, Head of Production Management Commercial Vehicles in the Powertrain Solution Division, Robert Bosch GmbH

Dr Christian Schiller, Head of Product Management Commercial Vehicles in the Powertrain Solutions Division, Robert Bosch GmbH

‘Global CO2 targets will only be achieved if commercial vehicles are as climate-friendly as possible. In order to reduce CO2 emissions as much as possible, Bosch is pursuing two options: one is the further improvement of combustion engines and the use of renewable fuels, while the other is electrification, specifically battery electric and fuel cell electric. In the end, the most important thing is that the energy sources used can be produced sustainably. We will see fuel cells being used in heavy goods vehicles to start with. They are a particularly favoured option for long distance routes because of their high range and short refuelling times. In China, we founded a joint venture in 2021 to supply vehicle manufacturers there with fuel cell systems. The first vehicles are already on the road.’

Zhenhao Gong, Marketing Product Director, Jrone Turbocharger System

Zhenhao Gong, Marketing Product Director, Jrone Turbocharger System     

‘Road transport currently contributes about 9% of global CO2 emissions, and the demand for road transport will double by 2050. We will have to act now to put the industry on the path to net-zero emissions. Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles and pure electric vehicles are the future zero-emission technologies for trucks  and it is an obvious choice for decarbonizing truck traffic. As one of the fuel cell electric vehicle BOP system companies, we focus on the "ALL IN GREEN" policy and the "two-wheel drive" strategy.’

Alexander Wolter, Head of Sales and Product Management Electromobility at BPW

Alexander Wolter, Head of Sales and Product Management Electromobility at BPW

‘The rapidly increasing diesel prices are putting significant pressure on the transport industry. The desire to protect the climate more when it comes to transport is also growing. I am therefore firmly convinced that the demand for alternative drives will grow steadily in the years to come. Electric lorries such as the BAX, which we launched on the market together with Paul Nutzfahrzeuge, are not just a tool that we can use to help decarbonise transport, but they also offer many other advantages. Thanks to much lower noise emissions, they mean that deliveries can be made to e.g. inner city supermarkets at night. The BAX 7.5 not only sets new benchmarks with a range of up to 200 kilometres and load capacity of three tonnes. The vehicles are also digitally networked ex works and can inform dispatchers and fleet managers in real time about the location, remaining range and even the load, enabling routes to be optimised at any time and above all: we can deliver them!’

Dr Stephan Rolfes, Member of the Board for Mobility at Stadtwerke Osnabrück

Dr Stephan Rolfes, Member of the Board for Mobility at Stadtwerke Osnabrück

‘It was clear to us early on that public transport was facing a turning point. We deliberately wanted to be at the forefront of the movement and be pioneers – and we managed it. Diesel buses are on the way out. Alternative drives combined with innovative mobility concepts are not just the future, but have been our present for quite some time now. We would not be able to run public transport in an attractive, emission-free and sustainable way otherwise. In Osnabrück, we managed to ignite a love of all things electric. This enthusiasm has carried us the whole way and in my view, it is a key success factor that other communities should take on board’.


  • Alternative Drives