Here Is Why Battery-Electric Semis, Not H2, Will Dominate Zero-Emissions Road Freight

Mercedes-Benz eActros LongHaul 7 photos
Photo: Daimler Truck
The longest distance traveled by a commercial electric truck so farHydrogen unlikely to play major role in road transport, even for heavy trucksMercedes-Benz eActros LongHaulEurope’s first public charging corridor for electric trucksTeraWatt developing I-10 network of electric heavy-duty charging centersNikola Tre FCEV truck
It took several years for Tesla to finally put its Tesla Semi into mass production. While it is certainly the most appealing long-haul electric truck at the moment, it is not the first of its kind on the road. Volvo, Daimler, Renault, and others have already produced thousands of battery-electric trucks up to this point. Is this a hint for the electric future of road freight?
Yes, it is. One of the many hints, actually. Of course, the road to an electric road freight sector is bumpy. Take for example the longest round-trip traveled by a commercial electric truck so far, courtesy of Swiss logistics company Krummen Kerzers.

At the end of January 2023, a Volvo FH Electric 40-ton semi-trailer truck carried 20 tons of oranges on a 3,000 km (1,860 miles) trip from Valencia, Spain, to Zurich, Switzerland. It took the driver a week and a carefully planned route so that the 20 breaks occurred simultaneously with charging times.

Using a diesel semi usually takes four days for this trip, so less time on the road means fewer logistics costs. On the other hand, using this 300 km (186 miles) range electric semi-tractor trailer saved almost 3 tons of CO2 emissions.

The longest distance traveled by a commercial electric truck so far
Photo: Krummen Kerzers
Now, which of these savings is more important for the bigger picture? Keep in mind that we're not yet counting the real cost of pollution. Well, the answer comes from a 2022 study.

Battery-electric trucks have an energy cost advantage over hydrogen trucks

Hold on a sec, mate! We all know by now that batteries are plagued by their shorter range than internal combustion engines, and it takes much more time to recharge a battery than to fill up a tank. That’s why fuel cell technology is very promising, as it doesn’t require changing behavior: you quickly fill up the tank and can travel hundreds of kilometers/miles with no range anxiety.

Right? Well, this is popular wisdom, based more or less on alternative facts or out-of-context truths. While Fraunhofer IFI’s analysis is based on solid data. Oh, excuse my lack of manners – Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung is one of the leading Institutes for innovation research in Europe. So you can trust their findings.

A study published a year ago in Nature Electronics has a self-explanatory title: “Hydrogen technology is unlikely to play a major role in sustainable road transport.” Basically, they state that fuel-cell technology for heavy-duty long-haul trucks has “a decisive disadvantage: only about a quarter of the output energy flows into the drive, three quarters is lost through conversion losses.

Sounds a lot like an internal combustion engine drawback, isn’t it? The much better efficiency of electric motors reverses the ratio, so an e-truck is, in most cases, the more costly and environmentally friendly solution. The main reason is “fuel and energy costs account for the largest share of the total cost of ownership (TCO) for intensively used commercial vehicles.”

Hydrogen unlikely to play major role in road transport, even for heavy trucks
Besides, the hydrogen-based economy makes sense only if sourcing and using green hydrogen – today 95% of the hydrogen for the industry is gray hydrogen, which is sourced from methane, which comes from natural gas, which is a fossil fuel and has many environmental drawbacks.

The Fraunhofer ISI study suggests that the expected green hydrogen production capacity currently planned for the EU for 2030 is limited. The energy-intensive industries – for example, steel mills – are to be prioritized in order to meet emissions reduction goals.

Big trucks require big batteries. Much bigger than those of the passenger cars

Tesla Semi has a massive ~900 kWh battery pack, while recent Mercedes-Benz eActros or Scania’s new BEV truck generation advertise “more than 600 kWh” units. Generally speaking, heavy-duty e-trucks require more than 500 kWh batteries.

To put that in perspective, the 2022 IDTechEx report 'Electric Vehicles: Land, Sea & Air 2022-2042' estimates that the non-automotive EV sector 2021 demanded approximately 31 GWh of battery capacity globally in 2021.

The electric trucks accounted for 4.3 GWh (13.8%), far less than the 12 GWh for electric buses (38.7%) or the 9 GWh for electric two and three-wheelers (29%). FYI: the demand for battery-electric and plug-in hybrid cars was more than 280 GWh, which is almost ten times more than non-automotive.

Still, the fastest demand growth for batteries is expected from electric trucks. You can see this trend from the Moon, because in China, there are already more than 200,000 medium- and heavy-duty trucks on the roads.

Mercedes\-Benz eActros LongHaul
Photo: Daimler Truck
In Europe, there are less than 140,000 units registered, and in the U.S. there are less than 90,000 units. Projections for China in 2030 are for more than 450,000 units. Meanwhile, Europe will likely be close to 270,000 units, while the U.S. is expected to pass the 300,000 mark thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act.

So, in less than ten years, there will be more than one million electric heavy-duty trucks worldwide. This means a 100-fold increase in battery demand for this sector! And it also means there is an urgent need for an area-wide fast-charging infrastructure for e-trucks.

Which, by the way, is easier, faster, and less costly to put in place than a hydrogen station network. But how feasible are fast-charging stations for big heavy-duty e-trucks?

Electric trucks fast-charging highways are already coming

BP Pulse – which is British Petroleum’s electric vehicle (EV) charging business – recently announced it builds Europe’s first public charging corridor for e-trucks. It consists of eight Ultra-fast 300 kW electric chargers, placed along a 600 km (370 miles) stretch of the Rhine-Alpine corridor across Germany.

It's one of Europe’s busiest road freight routes, and each of these stations can charge more than 20 e-trucks per charger each day. A 45-minute charging session is enough for about 200 km (125 miles) range. It's almost on par with EU driving and rest times, which requires “breaks of at least 45 minutes… after 4 ½ hours [of driving] at the latest.

Europe’s first public charging corridor for electric trucks
Photo: BP Pulse
Of course, new larger batteries will require more charging power. For instance, Tesla Semi will charge at a megawatt level. For now, the world’s fastest EV charging point is Terra 360 – because its output is 360 kW, obviously. It was developed by Shell and ABB.

But Zerova, a power supply manufacturer, has already unveiled the world’s fastest EV charger prototype, with an output of up to 480 kW. There is a race around the clock for the industry to launch, in 2024 at the latest, an 800 kW fast charger, aimed especially at heavy-duty electric trucks

In the meantime, a new standard is being developed to allow two or more MW fast charging. Yes, 2,000 kW power! This is 40 times more than the 50 kW that, only a few years ago, was the standard for fast charging. So how will you call a 2 MW charging, super-mega-extra-ultra-fast-charging?...

Maybe the name TerraWatt is a hint. TerraWatt Infrastructure is an American company that already raised more than $1 billion to develop “the first network of high-powered charging centers for heavy-duty and medium-duty electric trucks.

It will consist of multiple facilities – called TeraWatt Charging Centers – along the Interstate 10 (I-10) highway, stretching from the Port of Long Beach - Los Angeles, California, to the El Paso, Texas area. The I-10 Electric Corridor will be spread across California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

TeraWatt developing I\-10 network of electric heavy\-duty charging centers
Photo: TeraWatt Infrastructure
FYI: Global investments in electric vehicle charging are expected to be $1 trillion by 2040. And most of these investments are for charging points aimed at fleets of heavy-duty e-trucks, but also electric buses or other heavy-duty electric vehicles, ranging from construction to mining industries.

Fuel cell trucks will remain a niche application

Except for Tesla, all other big truck companies out there also invest in fuel cell technology. Well, the Fraunhofer ISI study states that “Many of the current investments in hydrogen cars seem to follow the sunk cost fallacy: We’ve already spent so much on this technology, we shouldn’t give up now.

Clearly not a friendly statement to hydrogen advocates. But also, a realistic one, based on the last decade’s development of both batteries and hydrogen technologies.

To date, investments in battery technologies totaled over $600 billion (€550 billion), while in 2030, they are expected to reach $1.2 trillion (€1.1 trillion). Hydrogen investments are estimated at $240 billion (€220 billion) up to 2022, while in 2030, they need to get to $700 billion (€640 billion) for the world to be on track for net zero emissions by 2050.

But hydrogen – as well as SAF – is mainly seen as a replacement for coal and gas in the energy sector, while the most stringent use in the transportation sector is for sea freight and aviation. Besides, there are many other challenges to road use, ranging from safely storing to the high costs of refueling.

Nikola Tre FCEV truck
Photo: Nikola Corporation
The best-case scenario for hydrogen trucks is they will be at most complimentary to the electric trucks fleet. It simply makes more sense and is much more efficient to use green hydrogen for the electricity needed in electric trucks’ batteries than fueling trucks with hydrogen.

By the way, in December 2022, SAE International published the first Technical Information Report for wireless charging of heavy-duty EVs. The SAE TIR J2954/2 is a game-changer guideline enabling ultra-fast wireless charging to 500kW for both trucks and buses.

It is widely considered to be a key enabler for accelerating the adoption of EVs and autonomous vehicles. Yes, electric autonomous trucks are more feasible than hydrogen-powered autonomous trucks thanks to wireless charging.

Fortunately, in the end, it’s a win-win scenario, no matter what technology will prevail, batteries or hydrogen – although it’s pretty much clear that, in the short, and medium term batteries are the safe bet. Unfortunately, delaying green investment decisions favors pollution caused by fossil fuels. This is a price we simply cannot afford to pay anymore.
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About the author: Oraan Marc
Oraan Marc profile photo

After graduating college with an automotive degree, Oraan went for a journalism career. 15 years went by and another switch turned him from a petrolhead into an electrohead, so watch his profile for insight into green tech, EVs of all kinds and alternative propulsion systems.
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