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Hydrogen Powered Auto Transport Trucks May Be Here Soon

Hydrogen Powered Auto Transport Trucks

We’ve written about the potentials of hydrogen before. Whether we’re talking about fleet vehicles, or how legislation in California is affecting the alternative energy market, it’s a fascinating topic. And, really, an important one, as fuel is one of the biggest costs in car transportation today. So it’s easy to scoff when we say “hydrogen powered auto transport trucks may be here soon.” We’ve been saying it for years.

But this time, it might be different.

Enter the Nikola Motor Company

If you don’t know, the Nikola Motor Company (NMC) is a “hybrid truck design company” that also dabbles in research and development. They are perhaps best known for their foray into hydrogen fuel cells for commercial trucks. According to this article, they also plan on having battery-electric models for local trucks.

The name has been circulating around the various automotive industries since at least 2013. But for the past six years the company has been relatively quiet on the hydrogen powertrain front. A big part of it has been the cost and the difficulty in building the hydrogen-fuel infrastructure. Like gasoline, hydrogen powered vehicles will need to refuel. Therefore, having the infrastructure in place has been one of the biggest roadblocks to hydrogen powered trucks.

Now, NMC is saying they’ll just build it themselves.

The chicken and the egg

NMC wants to roll out their first hydrogen-powered trucks by 2022, but in order to do that, they need the fueling and repair infrastructure in place. This problem has been called the “chicken and the egg” dilemma by industry insiders. If the fueling stations fail to do what they’re designed to, hydrogen powered trucks are useless. But if the stations get built and the trucks fall through, all those stations are useless. And besides, it’s not like hydrogen is exactly cheap to transport – getting the hydrogen to the stations for the trucks to use to refuel is an expense and logistical problem all on its own.

Quite the pickle.

Now, though, NMC is saying they’ve solved the problem by simply manufacturing the hydrogen on-site at the fueling stations. They’ve already built one near the company’s headquarters in Arizona, and a heavy-duty version will be built in Chandler next year. The plan is to have a full eight-ton hydrogen refueling station built in 2021, which will be the start of a massive ramp-up of station construction starting in 2022.

Nikola’s Executive Vice President of Hydrogen Jesse Schneider says each station will produce hydrogen on-site. More importantly, the stations will each be capable of producing up to eight tons of hydrogen per day. This would necessitate a cost of $6 per kilogram. To put this into perspective, the NMC trucks are designed to have a fuel capacity of 80 kilograms.

So, $480 to fill a full truck. However, those are supposedly the public rates – commercial fleets would likely get discounts. More over, over the course of a full seven-year lease (the lease length of one of NMC’s tucks), the total cost-per-mile for hydrogen fuel will be just 95 cents.

Powering the masses

NMC’s fueling stations will be coming on the back of Ryder System, Inc.’s 800+ service locations nationwide. A major part of that lease agreement is that fuel is included in the lease terms. This will allow NMC to essentially fix the price of their fuel for at least seven years. With this in mind, NMC is expecting to be able to fully fuel 150 trucks and 200 cars per day, with fueling time for trucks being under ten minutes.

Purchasers of NMC trucks will also have access to maintenance at those service stations. While this will require some additional training for Ryder employees, bundling the cost into the truck lease should help companies lower their financial burden when switching to hydrogen.

The biggest hurdle for companies that want to switch to hydrogen is simple finances. It’s always been expensive to run a commercial truck, but the diesel model at least makes it manageable. But not only is NMC’s hydrogen model projecting to be far cheaper on a per-mile basis, but it will also be more eco-friendly as well.

If all goes according to plan, the service stations will be powered by renewable energy sources, likely solar and wind. This goes not just for the service stations, but for anything the company does. Even their production plants are projected to be run on renewable energy.

Company executive VP Jesse Schneider believes that, if everything works right, diesel could be in the grave within two decades. While that may be a stretch, stranger things have happened.

So, about hydrogen powered auto transport trucks

Hydrogen powered auto transport trucks haven’t been mentioned as of yet. It’s because auto transportation trucks are like most other commercial trucks in that the trailer itself can hook on to just about any cab. And when we’re talking about hydrogen powered trucks, we’re mostly talking about the engine and the cab.

It’s fairly likely that auto transport companies are going to look into switching to hydrogen once it becomes available. However, rollout and conversion will likely be slow, as it always is with car transporters. Many on the road are single-truck operators, after all, and buying a new truck is hardly easy for a mom-and-pop operation. Even major fleets will likely take their time upgrading to hydrogen powered auto transport trucks.

There’s a lot of risk for these companies when it comes to switching to a hydrogen truck. For starters, if the infrastructure isn’t there, refueling is going to be difficult. Then, there’s the fact that some areas will be inaccessible to a hydrogen powered truck. Though the plan is to have over 800 service and refueling stations nationwide, where those stations will be will impact who can buy a hydrogen truck and who can’t. If their route takes them away from those service stations, it’s going to be very difficult to keep the truck fueled.

However, most auto transport routes are through major cities. If the roads between cities like Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Miami and New York are all chock full of hydrogen refueling stations, that allows a majority of car haulers the ability to switch.

Will they? Time will tell. We’ll keep an eye on this story as it develops and NMC gets closer to launching their first truck to the public.

Author’s edit: Nikola has used its semi truck to deliver several of Tesla’s Model 3 cars. So it looks like, ironically, one of the first things the hydrogen truck hauled were cars!

The auto transport guru! With 10+ years doing just about every job in the industry, I'm here to answer your questions and give you the lowdown on all things car shipping.
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