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Daimler, Volvo outline joint fuel cell roadmap

April 29, 2021
The partnership, cellcentric, is conceptualizing plans for large-scale series production of hydrogen fuel cell systems for long-haul trucking by 2025.

Nearly a year and a half ago, two competing commercial truck OEMs began collaborating on a partnership for fuel-cell-powered transportation in the commercial vehicle space. After forming cellcentric on March 1, Daimler Truck AG and Volvo Group have officially launched their joint venture to develop, produce, and commercialize hydrogen fuel-cell systems for long-haul trucking and other applications.

During an April 29 digital launch in Europe, Martin Daum, CEO of Daimler Truck AG, and Martin Lundstedt, Volvo Group president and CEO, publicly outlined their roadmap for cellcentric, which has been designed to help meet the 2050 targets of the European Green Deal.

Technically a startup, cellcentric will draw on decades of experience and development work from both OEMs. According to Daum, the joint partnership has all the ingredients of a typical startup, with the “energy and passion” of small teams, “working fast and agile toward one mission.”

However, he was quick to call the venture a “typical startup with deep substance.”

“[Cellcentric] doesn’t have to worry about the next financials. They don’t have to kick out headlines just to attract more investors and get a little more money to survive the next year,” Daum emphasized. “They have extremely strong and committed parents, they have an absolutely strong financial base, and they have a commitment from both parents to invest whatever it takes to get to zero emissions and to see the production of zero-emission components. And they have a very strong know-how base.

“We have hundreds of patents, we know that these things work, we have fuel cells ready to go into trucks to show the world, and we have a customer base similarly eager to get the first production output out and everything that a grownup company has,” he added.

According to the companies, more than 300 experts work for cellcentric in interdisciplinary teams at locations in Stuttgart, Germany, and Burnaby, Canada. In addition, some 700 individual patents have been issued so far.

“We have been talking about hydrogen and the potential of hydrogen for quite some time,” Volvo’s Lundstedt explained. “I’ve been in this industry for 30 years and we’ve always said, ‘It’s about 10 years away, and then 10 years away.’ But now we are really getting here. We see a clear roadmap for execution both when it comes to technology and commercialization.”

Both Daimler and Volvo agree that purely battery-electric and hydrogen-based fuel-cell trucks will complement each other depending on use case. Battery power will be used for lower cargo weights and shorter distances, while fuel-cell power will tend to be the preferred option for heavier loads and longer distances.

Daum pointed out that hydrogen-powered trucks will be more advantageous for long-haul trucks that endure more unpredictable routes and that need a dependable energy source, similar to the way diesel trucks are refilled today. Hydrogen has another advantage over battery electric—more users can tap into the grid simultaneously.  

“It’s always easy for the first thousand trucks to run on battery electric and use the electric power grid, but it’s really about looking to a future where 100,000 or millions of trucks need that electric power grid at the same time that 10 million or even more passenger cars need the same power grid,” Daum explained. “In this sense, we need a second source for energy, and that energy is hydrogen.”  

Roadmap and policy framework

Because carbon-neutral trucks are significantly more expensive than conventional vehicles, both Daum and Lundstedt emphasized the importance of a policy framework to ensure demand and affordability. They believe that framework should include incentives and a taxation system based on carbon and energy content.

Currently, cellcentric is conceptualizing plans for large-scale series production in 2025. More details and a decision on the location will be revealed over the course of 2022, Lundstedt noted.

The goal for both OEMs is to start with customer tests of fuel-cell trucks in about three years and to be in series production of fuel-cell trucks during the second half of this decade. All vehicle-related activities, however, will remain independent.

“Martin Lundstedt and I have a lot in common, and we share the same vision in driving zero-emission technologies,” Daum pointed out. “But we have one difference between the two of us: Martin Lundstedt thinks that Volvo trucks are the best in the world, and he is completely wrong. Because I think Mercedes trucks and Freightliner trucks are the best in the world.

“We want to let the customer decide which one is better,” he added. “We focus on the core power source, which is the fuel cell, in the joint venture. The trucks coming out will be different. Yes, we are competitors on one side and when it comes to the heart of the power source, we are completely cooperating together.”

Overall, the road to widescale adoption of zero-emissions vehicles comes down to vehicle offerings, infrastructure, and cost parity. For both OEMs—and the ecosystem as a whole—infrastructure is a huge undertaking and must be done in parallel with vehicle development by working with policymakers and energy providers.

“We need that cooperation with energy companies, and we need the support from the politicians to get that first initial investment up and going for the infrastructure because otherwise it doesn’t matter how good our product offering is, sales would still be zero,” Daum stressed. “We need that dense network of about a thousand hydrogen fuel stations by 2030, and the hydrogen we sell needs to be green hydrogen.”

Lundstedt added the good news that cellcentric and other companies have begun work on the cost parity roadmap to scale up development and adoption in order to lower the overall cost of the fuel cell.

“The modular concept of cellcentric is very strong,” Lundstedt said. “The reason cellcentric is set up with close cooperation between engineering, sourcing, and commercialization is really to drive this efficiency when it comes to the scaling up of this technology.”

Another technical question cellcentric will have to solve moving forward is whether to use hydrogen as a liquid or gas.  

“Liquid hydrogen has a far higher density than gaseous hydrogen,” Daum pointed out. “Today, we have gaseous hydrogen in the system, which is what we normally call gray or blue hydrogen. Then we go to green hydrogen, which is more on the liquid side. But on the other side is retail distribution and with thousands of stations all over Europe, it can only be one—not both at the same time. The fuel cell can digest both. For the development of the truck and the fuel cell, it makes no difference. But I think it will be better for society if we ultimately go to liquid hydrogen than gaseous.” 

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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