Hydrogen Trucks: Long-Haul’s Future?

Hydrogen Trucks: Long-Haul’s Future?

Hydrogen is entering the marketplace as an energy source for zero-emission long-haul trucking. Two paths are emerging, fuel cell electric and new hydrogen internal combustion engines. Hydrogen is not optimum for all duty cycles. Hydrogen fuel cell tractors are, however, the only viable zero-emission solution currently proposed for one-for-one replacements for diesel in the future of long-haul heavy-duty trucks.

In December 2020, the North American Council For Freight Efficiency (NACFE) compared a range of alternative fuel heavy-duty truck technologies including hydrogen in a report and the following findings from that report are still valid.

  • Hydrogen fuel cell trucks are just starting to see real-world use and their adoption is being driven by regional or national considerations that are much bigger than what exists for trucking fleets.
  • Battery electric trucks should be the baseline for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (HFCEV) comparisons, rather than any internal combustion engine alternative.
  • As for all alternatives, fleets should optimize the specifications of HFCEVs for the job they should perform while expecting that the trade cycles will lengthen.
  • The future acceleration of HFCEVs is likely not about the vehicles or the fueling but more about the creation and distribution of the hydrogen itself.
  • Finally, the potential for autonomous fuel cell trucks to operate 24 hours a day adds significant opportunity for making sense of capital and operational investments in hydrogen.

NACFE forecasted trends in state and federal regulations that could hasten hydrogen adoption, however, the period 2021 to 2022 has seen significant acceleration of state and federal efforts.

Other issues that need to be considered for hydrogen to be a viable fuel option for commercial vehicles:

  • Hydrogen economy cannot be built solely on the shoulders of long-haul trucking, as there simply is not enough there to get the scale needed for cost reduction.
  • Standardization will be critical to get volume cost reductions on designs of tanks, fuel systems, fuel cells, batteries, cables and connectors, etc. Individual
  • The pace of innovation, investment, regulation and awareness of hydrogen as a heavy-duty truck fuel has increased.
  • The oil industry significantly stepped-up publicizing and marketing their efforts to lower emissions. The sea change in the oil industry to pursuing zero-emission markets is significant, reinforcing a path toward hydrogen as a fuel in trucks hauling freight.
  • Infrastructure investments and regulatory efforts are also impacting the development of hydrogen as a fuel for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
  • There has been development of hydrogen internal combustion engines that presents a near-zero emissions vehicle that has the capability of going longer distances with shorter refuel times and weighing less than a battery electric vehicle specified to do the same job.
  • Green hydrogen production infrastructure projects are being developed and Significant funding is being allocated to hydrogen freight projects.

What People Are Saying

Most countries have committed to decarbonize and experts acknowledge and agree that hydrogen is necessary for decarbonizing the grid, so it is inevitable that low carbon hydrogen will be available.

Alan Mace, Product Applications Manager, Ballard Power Systems

As we move to the zero-emissions freight future, in the long run, there are only two choices of power – battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell.

Rick Mihelic, NACFE Director of Emerging Technologies

Hydrogen technology is coming faster than we expected. We will be testing a truck this year.

Rob Reich, Executive Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer, Schneider


Hydrogen will be a factor in future long-distance freight hauling in combination with battery electric vehicles for shorter range operations. Here are key findings from the report.

  1. Hydrogen powered freight is required for a zero-emission freight future.
  2. There is a significant amount of funding going toward establishing the basis for a hydrogen economy that includes long-haul freight transportation.
  3. The cost of hydrogen production, transportation storage and dispensing will not be cost competitive with diesel without significant assistance from tax credits and other subsidy mechanisms.
  4. Managing the actual retail cost of hydrogen is perhaps more important than continuing discussion of reducing the production cost at the hydrogen plant.
  5. Hydrogen is closely tied to electricity. You can’t have hydrogen without significant amounts of electricity.
  6. Hydrogen is a significant factor in federal, state and local planning and regulations for the zero-emission freight future.
  7. Purpose-built hydrogen trucks optimized for specific duty cycles may not be valued well in the secondary market, leading first owners to keep the vehicle until it is salvaged.
  8. Hydrogen costs decrease as the scale of the hydrogen plants increase. Large production requires multiple industries to increase demand for hydrogen. Trucking alone is insufficient to reach demand scale needed to justify large hydrogen plants.
  9. Hydrogen used for creating alternative fuels like renewable diesel will reduce net emissions but at the cost of delaying adoption of zero-emission alternatives.
  10. All the answers do not need to be known on day one of hydrogen. Production supply and market demand will evolve in lock step over time. Innovators will find market opportunities where there is an oversupply of hydrogen, creating new market demand.
  11. Hydrogen and electricity supply are inherently resilient as there are multiple methods of producing them, leading to competitive forces mitigating price and supply volatility.


Hydrogen for use in freight transportation is just in its infancy. NACFE developed four significant conclusions about hydrogen as a fuel source for commercial vehicles.

  • Hydrogen and battery electric are not an “either/or” but an “and” for the zero-emission freight future. Battery electric vehicles will inherently be the most economical and efficient choice for shorter distance zero-emission duty cycles, and hydrogen will be the only viable economic choice for long-haul zero-emission duty cycles. Ultimately fleets in the market will make decisions on which technology succeeds for which duty cycles.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell tractors are the only zero-emission solution for many heavier, longer distance duty cycles for heavy-duty tractors. Significant cost reduction across all cost elements is needed for these tractors to be cost effective. Supply chain companies from shippers, to carriers, to fuel suppliers and others along with government assistance, must share in higher costs for the benefits of zero emissions.
  • Alternative fuels like RNG, renewable diesel, and hydrogen used in internal combustion engines will be required to support the transition in the next two decades to help make progress toward zero-emission goals, while in parallel ramping up the hydrogen and battery electric infrastructure and manufacturing base.
  • Industry agreement is needed on whether hydrogen long-haul fuel cell tractors and the transport of the hydrogen fuel itself, will be based on gaseous or liquid hydrogen. This is a core factor that can impact multiple infrastructure and manufacturing systems, and significantly impact market penetration and volume estimates for cost reduction potential.