Future of trucking is charging ahead

Be in no doubt, the giants of the trucking world are fast tracking their way to a future where fossil fuels could become almost as extinct as the prehistoric plants that created them. Certainly, it won’t be a quick or easy transition as new technologies radically reshape all forms of automotive power, but it is coming and spearheading the charge is the biggest of them all, Daimler Truck.

To the benignly uninformed, the blatantly uninterested and especially the belligerently unimpressed, advanced new technologies can be confronting, confusing and ponderously difficult to decipher. A mental minefield, easier undermined than understood.

Quite often, and particularly in the early stages of development, there can be so much that just doesn’t compute in the cerebral cavern of most minds – this one included – when something appears a very long way outside the square of ‘normal’.

Much depends, I guess, on how advanced, complex or different the new technology is and the product or component it affects. At its most extreme, radical technology can appear to the average layman as a world of unnecessary intrusion, a dark art, inhabited by tedious technocrats, staid scientists, fairy tale futurists, commercial carpetbaggers and at the end of the chain, manipulative marketeers.

Still, there’s no shortage of examples where seemingly complex technology has also been hugely successful. Like, the arrival of electronic engine controls in the ’80s and specifically, Detroit Diesel’s original Series 60 engine, delivering the world’s first completely new heavy-duty diesel engine developed from the outset with full authority electronic engine controls.

Those old enough to recall those days will also recall that this was radical stuff indeed, and with typical predictability, frustrations and derision were rampant as the technology went through its inevitable growing pains on the way to maturity. Yet, despite its early issues and snarling complaints, the electronically controlled Series 60 quite literally changed the world of diesel engine design and efficiency, to the point where it is today unimaginable that any powertrain is not completely controlled by the microprocessors of an electronic control module. 

Similarly, the evolution of automated mechanical transmissions wasn’t without its early detractors. Again though, the technology has gradually developed to the stage where highly advanced and incredibly intuitive automated shifters are simply accepted as the norm while manual transmissions – and the drivers capable of using them with any proficiency – are on a greasy pole to history’s scrapheap.

The point of all this is that the formative days of any new technology, and especially radical new technology which completely upends accepted practice, will initially, and almost certainly, beckon resentment and ridicule rather than respect or regard for its potential to improve and impress.

Mercedes-Benz eActros. Our first drive was short but hugely impressive. Australian trials start early next year

And it is happening again, right now. However, the difference this time is that we are  on the cusp of change so great, so extreme, and so far beyond anything that has gone before it in the history of motorised transport, that to deny its existence and accelerating evolution is effectively a denial of mankind’s pursuit of progress.

Nonetheless, some will bemoan technology’s intrusion, others may be excited, but those born in this decade and beyond may well wonder what all the fuss was about and why it took the edge of a climatic cliff to forge a new future. And let’s face it, the reason for the rush to new energy sources is because the world now largely accepts that climate change is a real and present danger.

Consequently, we are now experiencing the early forays of a quantum shift in motive power which, at its dramatic conclusion in the commercial vehicle industry, will ultimately see the diminution of engine and transmission powertrains as we currently know them. In their place are revolutionary energy systems designed to drastically reduce dependence on fossil fuels by utilising electrical power provided by batteries and not too far down the technological track – certainly before the end of this decade – the full scale production of trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And beyond that, technologies and systems still encased in imagination and invention.  

The changes are mind boggling in both their scope and increasing certainty, all happening on a technological and economic scale of seemingly boundless proportions.

The thing is though, it’s not until you’re actually staring at it, sitting in it, driving it, and talking about it with the people at the coal face (okay, bad choice of words) of these quickly evolving technologies that some understanding of the commitment and reasoning behind their development starts to truly sink in.

Even so, the technology and its systems are undeniably complex and confronting for the simple reason that so much is so different to anything we’ve ever known before. Thus, for us simple folk who have already endured and adapted to the life-changing evolution of computers and mobile communications, the same open mind is needed to accept that the holy grail of carbon-neutral road transport won’t be delivered by more of the same fossil-fuelled hardware but rather, an entirely new approach to the energy sources that move freight. Energy sources that are being constantly developed, evaluated and refined as evolution continues its never-ending journey.

Whatever the exact outcomes, the operational merit of new technology is becoming ever more apparent and over a few intense days in Germany, Daimler Truck wasn’t shy about showing a few of us just how determined and close it is to bridging the gap between potential and reality.

Build quality of eActros appears excellent. The electric truck runs down the same Wörth production lines as its diesel counterparts but safety decrees that high voltage electrical work is done in a specialised area

There was, however, more to it than an overview of current and future technologies. After all, battery-electric and even hydrogen fuel cell technology are not new news and while both have been for many years reported and publicised as advanced development projects by the world’s automotive giants, high-profile entrepreneurs and investor companies have to date been quickest to capitalise on the technological revolution. Tesla, for example, and closer to home, Sea Electric.

 RELATED ARTICLE: NSW Uni converts diesel engine to hydrogen. 

Yet as we’ve regularly commented over the past five years or so, in the commercial vehicle world it will require the commitment, technical resources and extensive model range of automotive giants to drive new technologies to operational reality on a vast scale. Giants such as Daimler Truck.

The stakes are high but so, too, is the German superpower’s corporate ambition. Indeed, the obvious observation after just a few days of quick-fire presentations was Daimler Truck’s unflinching pursuit of operationally practical and economically feasible alternatives to oil-based automotive energy. As the company states, ‘the goal is to have its new trucks and buses in the vast markets of Europe (Mercedes-Benz), Japan (Fuso) and North America (Freightliner) in CO2-neutral driving operation by 2039’ and ‘battery-electric series-production vehicles by 2022 in all core regions.’

‘We are clearly committed to the decarbonisation of our industry,’ says Martin Daum, the formidable, no-nonsense head of Daimler’s global truck and bus business.

‘Having CO2-neutral transport on the road by 2050 is our ultimate goal. This can only be achieved if competitive conditions for CO2-neutral transport are created for our customers in terms of costs and infrastructure. 

‘Truly CO2-neutral transport only works with battery-electric or hydrogen-based drive.’

Herr Daum and his kind are not kidding, with the path to the future already set, sealed and vitally, budgeted. There will be no turning back.

Charging Ahead - Pic C1.jpg

Meantime, detailing Daimler’s developments is no easy task and this report does not purport to achieve anything more than scratch the surface of technical understanding. Again, the technology is complex and at times, confounding to those of us raised on a diet of diesel. And not for a moment does this report suggest that diesel will be dead anytime soon but equally, as economists emphasise, crude oil will only continue to be extracted so long as it is profitable to do so.

What was seen, heard and experienced in Germany simply further confirmed the fact that global powerhouses such as Daimler Truck are not just responding to the modern world’s awareness of environmental stress, but actually taking an authoritative lead in forcefully fast-tracking viable solutions to commercial reality. 

Batteries for the ’burbs

Summer was continuing its unusually brutal assault on the northern hemisphere. Severe temperatures, fierce fires and in other parts, wickedly destructive floods. According to news reports, climate change was the major culprit and within the walls of Daimler Truck, 2022’s weather patterns were just further vindication for the growing imperative of creating viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

The future in focus. Daimler Truck’s two ‘Gen H2’ prototypes on a high-speed loop. These represent the starting point for Daimler’s on-road development and testing of hydrogen fuel cell technology before going into production in five or six years’ time

It was also uncharacteristically hot at Wörth in Germany’s south-west, topping 40 degrees Celsius. Gratefully, the air conditioner in the eActros was in full swing as the truck stood in the blazing sun while the driver trainer explained the various features and simple driving instructions of the battery-electric truck before pointing me into local traffic.

Somewhat surprisingly, he seemed totally unconcerned that the aircon might be pulling valuable charge from the truck’s three battery packs. And fair enough. After all, for a driver stuck in traffic in sweltering heat or freezing weather, an electric truck needs to be just as convenient and comfortable as any other truck.

Soon enough we were on the road, driving through suburbs, along narrow rural roads and a quick stretch along a motorway. All up, little more than 30 minutes in what’s known as an eActros 300 model, signifying three batteries in a two-axle rigid loaded to a gross weight around 15 tonnes. In three-axle form, eActros is said to be rated up to 27 tonnes. 

Electric trucks are not, of course, a new science to Daimler’s technical boffins. As the company stated several years ago, ‘Daimler has been gaining experience with electric trucks since 2010 and has had its first all-electric truck in series production on the market and in customers’ hands since 2017.’

That truck is the Fuso eCanter and we’ve had the opportunity to drive it several times, initially on Fuso’s test track in Japan followed by several stints in Australia. 

The eActros, however, is the heaviest battery-electric truck driven to date and like its Fuso counterparts, the quietness, brilliant acceleration and remarkable retardation of the Mercedes-Benz were no less outstanding, even at its substantially higher gross weight.

Still, there was something different about this truck, perhaps best explained as an extraordinarily high level of smoothness and operational refinement, reflecting not just the build quality from Mercedes-Benz’s nearby Wörth production plant but also the ongoing evolution of development which significantly broadens the operational potential and appeal of battery-electric trucks.

Since that drive, Daimler Trucks Australia has announced it will next year begin a local evaluation program for the all-electric eActros, setting four trucks to work in Australia and one in New Zealand, and the likelihood of more to follow in both countries. From all appearances, our neck of the woods is firmly on Daimler Truck’s radar for electric models and we’re confident a more detailed appraisal of eActros will emerge after driving a test unit in local conditions.

Launched in Germany late last year, eActros is the first of four CO2-free (carbon neutral) models in Daimler Truck’s stated product strategy. Recently joining eActros on the Wörth production line is eEconic, the battery-electric municipal waste collection specialist, to be followed in 2024 by the eActros Longhaul (prime mover) battery-electric model which made its first public appearance as the star of the Mercedes-Benz stand at the huge IAA commercial vehicle show in Hanover in September. 

RELATED ARTICLE: 40-tons eActros climbs mountains.

Then comes the truly big player in the technological stakes for heavy-duty long distance work, the hydrogen fuel cell development truck known at the moment as ‘Gen H2’ and slated for production in 2027 or ’28.

In its current form, the ‘alternative energy’ product plan appears simple enough with several Daimler insiders asserting that battery-electric models from the lightweight eCanter to the heavy-duty eActros Longhaul will satisfy shorthaul urban roles while the hydrogen fuel cell will obviously target linehaul duties.

Metro work, however, figures foremost in the current plan and eEconic is seen as a model with significant potential as inner city councils across Germany and many parts of Europe increasingly insist on electric trucks to reduce noise and pollution. And helping the electric cause in no small way are diesel costs which in some parts have doubled since Russia’s vicious assault on Ukraine.

Indeed, the case for battery-powered trucks in municipal waste collection is particularly strong according to eEconic product manager, Linda Fritzenwanker, who explains that while politicians have joined the chorus for electric trucks in cities and urban areas, the push is more notably coming from Daimler’s own culture to reduce CO2 emissions wherever possible.

Still, while purchase cost of the eEconic remains prohibitive at around three times the price of a current diesel equivalent, Linda insists price will come down as sales volumes grow and appeal will increase as the price of diesel continues to climb. What’s more, working in urban environments provides easier access to recharging infrastructure, she adds.

As for the life expectancy of batteries, it is said to be around six to eight years. However, she was quick to assert, “But that’s being very conservative.”

Meantime, while it was recently announced that eEconic will join eActros in Australian and New Zealand trials early next year, there is not yet a version with the dual steering controls required by the majority of Australia’s waste collection operators.

Prototype performance was amazing. A standing start at 42 tonnes on a severe 18 percent grade was super-smooth, super-quiet and super-strong. Stunning!

Critically though, Daimler’s intention is to build all models – battery-electric, fuel cell and diesel – on Wörth production lines where the massive factory’s maximum capacity is up to 470 trucks a day, making it not only the biggest of Daimler’s plants in France, Turkey and Brazil, but the biggest truck manufacturing facility in the world.

However, as deputy plant manager Manuel Bogel remarked, eActros and the upcoming eEconic run down the same line as their diesel-powered counterparts only to the point where cab and chassis come together. After that, the electric model is rolled a short distance to a highly specialised Future Truck Centre where battery packs and all associated wiring are fitted and tested before heading to customers. 

As Manuel explained, safety is the key reason for completing production of the battery-electric trucks in a separate specialised facility where electrical technicians install the high voltage systems. “It is very different to simply fitting a diesel engine on the main lines,” he remarked.

As for future production of hydrogen-powered fuel cell models at Wörth, he left no doubt that plans are already well advanced. “It will happen,” he said with absolute certainty.

Celling the future

So what is a fuel cell and more specifically, a hydrogen fuel cell? 

In raw simplicity, hydrogen fuel cells work by putting hydrogen into close contact with oxygen to create electricity and water. 

Yet perhaps one of the more detailed and easily understood explanations we’ve found comes from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the US Department of Energy which starts by citing ‘… the benefits of a fuel cell over conventional combustion-based technologies.

‘Fuel cells can operate at higher efficiencies than combustion engines and can convert the chemical energy in the fuel directly to electrical energy with efficiencies capable of exceeding 60 percent (and) have lower or zero emissions compared to combustion engines. (By comparison, the thermal efficiency of a diesel engine struggles to reach 50 percent.)

‘Hydrogen fuel cells emit only water, addressing critical climate challenges as there are no carbon dioxide emissions. There are no air pollutants (and) fuel cells are quiet during operation as they have few moving parts.’

As for how a hydrogen fuel cell actually works, the explanation becomes somewhat more involved: ‘Fuel cells work like batteries, but they do not run down or need recharging. They produce electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied.

‘A fuel cell consists of two electrodes – a negative electrode (or anode) and a positive electrode (or cathode) – sandwiched around an electrolyte. A fuel, such as hydrogen, is fed to the anode and air is fed to the cathode. 

‘In a hydrogen fuel cell, a catalyst at the anode separates hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons, which take different paths to the cathode. The electrons go through an external circuit, creating a flow of electricity. The protons migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they unite with oxygen and the electrons to produce water and heat.’

Simply stated, the end result in practical terms is a cleaner and far more efficient energy source with more than an enough muscle to significantly outperform existing diesel designs.

In a remarkable display, several laps on a highly restricted test track in the passenger seat of one of Daimler’s two ‘Gen H2’ prototypes left no doubt about the extraordinary performance capabilities of a hydrogen fuel cell. It was, in fact, one of those occasions when you had to experience it to believe it before confidently coming to the conclusion that this is the eventual future for long distance road freight.

Behind the wheel was Andreas Hoefort, an engineer of zero emission technology at Daimler Truck Advanced Engineering, who delighted in demonstrating the truck’s stunning standing start performance on a severe 18 percent grade at a gross weight of 42 tonnes. It was, unequivocally, a super-smooth, super-quiet and super-strong performance but as he also pointed out when driving at highway speed on a fast section of the track, the system is programmed to conserve energy and dispense only the required amount of power for a particular role, be it full effort for heavy, severely steep starts or partial power for slowly moving in heavy traffic or manoeuvring in tight areas. Or as he put it, the mix of fuel cell and battery outputs adjusts to suit fluctuating operational demands. 

A waste industry specialist, eEconic is now in production at Wörth, capitalising on urban demand for quieter, cleaner electric trucks. It, too, will start Australian trials next year

As he further explained though, it’s still very early days and Daimler’s two test units are notably different. The truck provided for our visit, for instance, uses hydrogen stored as a gas, starting trials more than a year ago and to date clocking around 24,000km in an intense research and development program on test tracks and public roads. This unit is, he emphasised, effectively the starting point in Daimler’s on-road fuel cell development as it strives to reach production stage in five years or so. 

However, the latest prototype uses liquid hydrogen stored under pressure in special tanks at a temperature around 250 degrees below freezing, providing substantially greater range between refuels than the gas version. 

From a short distance, both fuel cell trucks look little different to their diesel counterparts but up close it’s a totally different view, particularly at the back of the cab where the power distribution unit and the various cooling systems for the high voltage batteries, fuel cell and electric (motorised) drive hubs bear no resemblance to current componentry. It is nothing like anything that exists today despite Andreas’s somewhat optimistic assertion that the aim is to make the design “… as normal as possible.”

Moreover, there’s no gearbox, just a constant application of torque from fuel cells and batteries into drive motors in the wheel ends. “It is,” as he remarked with sublime simplicity, “a total reinvention of power.”

Yet one thing the two prototypes do share with diesel trucks is limited chassis space for fuel tanks and associated hardware, and a battle to keep tare weight within viable limits.

Accordingly, says Andreas Hoefort, the wheelbase of the Gen H2 demonstrator is 300mm longer than normal to accommodate componentry and still maintain a reasonable gap between truck and trailer. It is also around two tonnes heavier than its diesel equivalent but the European Union grants an ongoing two tonne concession for electric vehicles, though Daimler’s goal is for tare weight parity with diesel versions by the time the fuel cell models are ready for production.

As for life expectancy of a fuel cell truck operating in European conditions, he says the target is for 10 years or around 1.2 million kilometres but he casually suggests this may prove to be conservative. What’s more, while the two test units are typically European 4×2 models, he confirms that 6×2 and 6×4 versions are also locked into future development plans.

Andreas Hoefort, engineer of zero emission technology at Daimler Truck Advanced Engineering. On hydrogen fuel cell development, “There is still much work to be done … but we have already come a very long way.”

“Of course, there is still much work to be done,” he said plainly before quickly adding, “but we have already come a very long way.” 

Our time with Andreas Hoefort and the fuel cell truck was over too soon. In some ways though, it was an experience generated a day earlier in a nondescript, underwhelming building in a light industrial area about an hour or so from Daimler Truck headquarters in Stuttgart. On the outside was a sign simply stating ‘Cellcentric’ but inside, once guided through the security system, a new world unfolds in short, sharp detail with verbal and visual presentations about things like the proton exchange membrane and the catalyst coated membrane, or the membrane electrolyte frame assembly. In one form or another, there’s a lot of brain in this place. Literally!

Simply put, this is where fuel cell technology, current and coming, is born and bred. Well, actually, it’s one of four such centres – three in Germany, one in Canada – operated by Cellcentric since the company’s formation in 2021 as a 50:50 joint venture between the trucking world’s two superpowers, Daimler Truck and Volvo Group.

Led by a high-level executive team from both camps, several hundred highly specialised technicians and engineers are working at facilities across both countries, with Cellcentric reporting, ‘Around 700 patents have been issued, underlining the leading role played by the company in terms of technological development (and) the goal now to transfer this technology to mass production and to significantly reduce costs.’

Critically, however, the creation of Cellcentric and the major funds committed to its research and operation blatantly confirm Daimler’s and Volvo’s absolute belief and confidence that fuel cells are the motive force of the future, near and far, for heavy long distance road transport. 

Moreover, it’s no secret that Volvo Group spent €600 million (almost A$900 million) as its contribution to the formation of Cellcentric while for Daimler, Volvo’s commitment helps share the financial load of capitalising on its 25 years’ experience in fuel cell research.

Diesel isn’t dead but over the next decade or two its dominance will dwindle as technology races ahead

Sure, it can seem an odd match between these two commercially combative giants but their aims for Cellcentric are united, ‘… to become the number one supplier for fuel cells to support Daimler Truck and Volvo Group vision of CO2 neutral transportation.’ 

Likewise, their individual ambitions are profoundly similar. For Daimler Truck, all its new vehicles in the European Union, North America and Japan ‘to be CO2-neutral by 2039’ and for Volvo Group, ‘all its new vehicles to be fossil-fuel free from 2040.’

As for Australia’s involvement in this brave new world of motive power, it seems our potential is already on the corporate radar. 

According to Cellcentric chief technical officer Nicholas Loughlan, the asset of hydrogen is that it is relatively easy to transport and the infrastructure for storage and refuelling is easier than battery-electric, and not dissimilar to diesel. 

Most notably though, he contends, “Australia is perfectly placed environmentally and geographically to make the most (of this technology) and become a world leader in the use of green hydrogen.” That is, hydrogen produced by renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro energy.

So, yes, it’s complex and at times, confusing. It will confound many and concern more. But it is the future and it’s closer, much closer, than many might think.  

Send this to a friend