This article initially appeared in the June 2019 issue of PowerTALK

Dennis Huibregtse is a membe of the PSR Board of Directors and Consultant to Power Systems Research(PSR). He is the former president and CEO of PSR.

PowerTALK™ recently noted changes in the management of Power Systems Research (PSR), as well as a partnership with the global research firm of IHS Markit to produce a new series of equipment market reports. These are significant changes for PSR, of course, but they are only a fraction of the changes happening in the ever-evolving industry that we serve. 

Looking at a steady flow of alternative powertrain developments and the rate at which they are happening, it seems to be a time of unprecedented change.

And change is good. Someone said, “If you’re not changing, you’re dying,” and that is as true today as ever. We adapt to the constant change around us to survive, and the process of engaging with changes and adapting or accommodating them keeps us vital.

Changes are stimulating and interesting, even though they may not always be comfortable.

Diesel Alternatives

For some time, we’ve watched development of alternatives to diesel engine-based powertrains for heavy duty applications. The diesel is far from obsolete and remains the most viable and efficient choice for many applications, both on and off the road, and particularly for moving cargo over long distances.

It’s becoming clear that current battery-electric-only technologies come up short for long-haul vehicles.  That may change but will likely require a technical breakthrough to solve the recharging-range-weight equation as we know it today.

So that pushes to the sidelines Tesla’s Semi concept as an alternative to diesel for long haul applications, at least for now. It may be viable for short distances or regional out-and-back service, but not long haul. The industry seems to generally agree on that.

Meanwhile, Nikola continues to push forward with its fuel cell technology. The company also developed an all-electric truck that could compete with Tesla and others for short-haul or regional service. But it is creating the most waves with its hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain for long haul trucks, which it expects will generate 80% of its business.  Production launch is currently projected for 2022, according to Nikola press info.

That’s about three years from now. It seems ambitious, especially when at least one established powertrain producer believes the hydrogen fuel cell is perhaps six to eight years away from production.

Toyota also has been working on fuel cell development – for about 20 years, in fact – and has amassed considerable experience with the technology. Their current partnership with Paccar for heavy-duty drayage applications is demonstrating that they have something that performs in the real world. The leap from field test to a viable commercial vehicle is miles less than the gap confronting Tesla.

Are we approaching the point where the fuel cell-based powertrain will come to the market? Yes. 

Will that be in three years? Possibly; maybe only on a limited basis but it will surely have progressed from where things stand today.  Solving the hydrogen supply and refueling infrastructure challenges will be crucial. But we are seeing evidence that fuel-cell technology can be an alternative to diesel power for long-haul powertrains.    PSR