September 22, 2023

Volvo’s fuel cell truck advances but battery-electric is biggest push

HALLERED, Sweden — The plume of white smoke from Volvo’s fuel cell truck matched the white clouds in the Scandinavian sky. Stand too close and you feel the descending mist of water vapor.

The hydrogen tanks sweat just droplets at first. Then comes the release of about a liter of water, approximately the amount the 100-kilowatt fuel cell produces per kilometer traveled.

On a spin around the track at Volvo’s high-security proving ground about an hour east of its Gothenburg headquarters in southern Sweden, the company’s first fuel cell-equipped test truck performed admirably. There was little compressor noise from the oversize radiator. Most importantly, it emitted no planet-warming carbon dioxide or nitrogen oxides from burning fossil fuels.

Volvo demonstrated its fuel cell truck less than five years after all but shunning the technology in favor of battery-based electrification. 

The first test unit of Volvo’s fuel cell truck performed well in a brief ride at the company’s secure proving ground in Hallered, Sweden. (Photo: Volvo Trucks)

Conscious decision or FOMO?

Whether a conscious decision to cover all the bases in zero-emissions technology or a fear of missing out on a possible long-haul alternative to diesel pursued by some competitors, Volvo paid archrival Daimler Truck $650 million in 2021 for a 50% stake in a fuel cell manufacturing joint venture called cellcentric.

Daimler wanted to defray at least some of the cost of fuel cell development. It had spent billions on fuel cells for passenger vehicles before abandoning the effort in the last decade.

“Six or seven years ago, it would be unheard of to partner with your fiercest competitor,” said Johan Lunden, Volvo senior vice president of product strategy. “But that’s really what this transition is about.”

Only the fuel cell stack produced through the venture is common for two of Europe’s largest manufacturers. When it comes to selling fuel cell trucks in the second half of the decade, look for distinct products. Volvo and Daimler are at varying stages of testing.

One of Volvo’s preproduction prototypes showed its stuff at Hallered for a hosted visit of trucking journalists. A second truck with cellcentric’s updated twin 150kW fuel cell stacks is undergoing hot-weather testing in Spain.

It’s not easy being green

After long being regarded as a decade away, fuel cells are making significant progress. South Korea’s Hyundai has delivered 10 of 30 Xcient fuel cell trucks for pilot use at the Port of Oakland in California. The rest are expected in October. Paccar is working with Toyota on commercializing the automaker’s second-generation fuel cell stack for Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks in 2025. 

Startups Nikola, Hyzon Motors and Quantron are in the early days of producing trucks and firming up hydrogen fueling infrastructure. Engine maker Cummins is pouring hundreds of millions into electrolyzer production. Tier 1 supply leader Robert Bosch makes and licenses fuel cell technology to Nikola and develops electrolysis components for electrolyzers.  

Volvo executives are clear that hydrogen as a transportation fuel only works if it comes from renewable sources like wind and solar or is generated from an electrolyzer. All three are plentiful in Sweden and some parts of Europe but less so elsewhere. Hydrogen itself may be clean but if its feedstock is natural gas or methane, well-to-wheel emissions measurements suffer.

While they can run cleaner for longer distances and refuel more quickly than battery-electric trucks, hydrogen production consumes far more energy than batteries. 

Volvo: 75,000 electric trucks by 2030

Volvo’s goal of 50% of its new trucks being electric by 2030 is a big lift. It will require about 75,000 trucks compared to 6,000 it has delivered in 42 countries to date. It plans to sell only zero-emission trucks by 2040, with all of its trucks being carbon neutral by 2050 taking replacement cycles into account. 

A comparatively small number of those trucks will be equipped with fuel cells. Some could have hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engines if European and other governments follow through on indications they will classify them as zero-emission powertrains. Technically, hydrogen ICE emits some NOx emissions but the amount is minimal compared to diesel.

“We see that many segments will continue to use combustion engines in the future,” said Jessica Sandstrom, Volvo Trucks senior vice president of product management and sustainability. “It doesn’t mean it will be the internal combustion engine we have today.”

Volvo Trucks President Roger Alm and Jessica Sandstrom, senior vice president of product management and sustainability, address trucking media in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Volvo focusing on battery-electric trucks

The company’s decarbonization efforts focus on battery-electric trucks. Volvo already offers six of them from a 38,000-pound delivery truck to a 90,000-pound rigid body in Europe to the 80,000-pound Class 8 VNR Electric day cab in the United States.

Volvo began series production of three electric models — the FH, FM and FMX — for Europe last week in Ghent, Belgium. It is the fourth Volvo factory building electric trucks, including New River Valley in Dublin, Virginia.

“That is the product we foresee will have the largest volume over time,” Sandstrom said. “It is simply the most efficient solution. If we are going to be able to make the transformation from depending on fossil fuels to a fossil-free society, we need to make sure that we save energy on the way.”

Battery-electric trucks are the focus of Volvo’s efforts to decarbonize trucking. (Photo: Volvo Trucks)

Volvo’s construction equipment business is making some battery-electric machinery and electrification started with its bus business as early as 2005. Even the Volvo Penta marine engine unit has a path toward battery-electric propulsion.

The pace of growth will track with government incentives for purchase and infrastructure, said Roger Alm, Volvo Trucks president.

“Here in Europe we have seen that the markets that take off first are the ones where there are governmental subsidies or incentives,” he said.

NACFE lays out progression to hydrogen fuel cell trucks

Toyota aiming heavy-duty fuel cells for sale this year

Fear of missing out? Daimler and Volvo form fuel cell joint venture

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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