Diesel is destined to also disappear from commercial vehicles. Until recently, experts and manufacturers across the transport industry were still largely in agreement that the compression-ignition engine, at least for heavy vehicles, would have a very long future — because no technology was more efficient than diesel to carry vehicles over the Alps.
But Martin Daum, head of Daimler’s commercial vehicle division, has recently suggested the end of diesel trucks is coming: "We are doing everything we can to bring an end to diesel in Europe by 2039," the manager announced at the German Logistics Congress last month in Berlin. In the future, he will increasingly rely on vehicles powered by an electric battery or fuel cells.
And what about diesel? Since at the moment it is much more efficient and cheaper, it will initially keep being developed further by Daimler. But that could change very quickly, as Daum suggests: "As soon as society manages to make CO₂-free transports cheaper than fossil fuels, the market will shift overnight."
Farewell diesel, hello electric trucks?
Daimler wants to be prepared for this day, busy now diverting "substantial development funds" from diesel to electric and hydrogen-fueled technology. One reason for this is undoubtedly stricter CO₂ limits that will apply to trucks and buses throughout the EU in the future. And before the company has to start paying fines, it prefers to put the money towards being competitive in the logistics market of the future. After having been surpassed by China and the U.S. in terms of electric cars, the proud Daimler engineers want to avoid a similar disgrace in fuel cell propulsion.
This week, the Daimler subsidiary company Fuso presented the fuel cell prototype "Vision F-Cell" at the Tokyo Motor Show. Daum wants to launch the first hydrogen-powered production truck on the road in 10 years. Electric trucks and buses have been around for quite some time, but Daum speaks of "pioneering work" and his ambition is "that by 2039 all our new vehicles in Europe should be CO₂-neutral". The same idea applies to North America and Japan.
He linked this announcement with the corresponding political pressures all are facing: "In order to make CO₂-neutral trucks really competitive, we need government intervention." In the future, a CO₂-neutral vehicle should not cost more per kilometer than diesel-based engines. It is only then, given their small margins, that freight companies would be able to transition from regular trucks to environmentally sustainable vehicles. "Therefore, the higher cost of CO₂-neutral trucks would have to be compensated to align with conventional diesel models," Daum explains.
His suggestion is that it would be "urgently necessary" to highlight the toll on the CO₂ emissions from trucks and "significantly improve" emission-free trucks, first locally, and then all across Europe.
In addition, Daum is calling for the development of a nationwide infrastructure of charging stations, which would also be designed for heavy trucks. And hydrogen gas station should offer fuel not only in gaseous form, but also as liquid hydrogen. And to achieve this, politicians must "provide start-up aid - conceptually and financially."
In May, Daimler CEO Ola Källenius had already announced a similar strategic turn for all Mercedes passenger cars. By 2039, all new cars would be CO₂-neutral. Now the truck and bus segment is also making the switch. It is a remarkable reversal: until recently, experts had stressed that electric trucks would make no sense, because the batteries would be too heavy. Even in 2017, Källenius was maintaining that diesel was definitely not a model about to disappear. Daimler still needed diesel and said they would continue to develop it more in the future. "It offers advantages in terms of CO₂ emissions and is for a good reason still relevant in freight transport and in numerous markets, above all in Europe," Källenius insisted back then.
But in April, the European Parliament decided that the CO₂ emissions from trucks and buses would have to fall by an average of 15% by 2025, and by 30% by 2030. That is one of the reasons why the Volkswagen subsidiary Traton recently announced a change in its MAN and Scania brands. "In the next 10 to 15 years, every third truck and bus our brands carry should be using alternative fuels," says Traton CEO Andreas Renschler. His goal is "to become the leading manufacturer of e-trucks and e-buses." Daimler has now responded to this declaration of war and, at least verbally, has gone one step further.
"Until four years ago, politicians and the industry were always waiting for the other one to do something."
By 2022, there will be electricity-powered standard-production vehicles in all main areas of transport,
and by the end of the decade trucks and buses running on hydrogen fuel cells will be on the market. In order to get the CO₂-free vehicles on the road even faster and more effectively, a development team for all five truck subsidiaries of the group (Mercedes, Fuso, Freightliner, Bharat-Benz, Western Star) has been assigned to work together. However, Daimler is anything but a pioneer. The South Korean manufacturer Hyundai wants to test 1600 hydrogen trucks on the roads in Switzerland as early as 2020. The Stuttgart supplier Bosch is also working together with the U.S. manufacturer Nikola on a hydrogen truck. And the U.S. electric car manufacturer Tesla wants to enter the truck market and has announced the so-called semi-truck for 2020.
Transport expert Matthias von Alten from the consulting firm Publicis Sapient describes Daimler's decision as the "right move."
It is still unclear how fast the alternative transport technologies will be affordable and when they will become part of an ecobalance in a holistic way — because the production of hydrogen requires a lot of energy. But because so many questions remain unanswered, "research activities are imperative", according to Alten. The impact of the switch the Daimler Group is talking about making is not yet clear.
Martin Daum emphasizes that alternative vehicles will be more expensive than diesel engines in the foreseeable future. The switch to CO₂-neutral transport will therefore also make the goods being trucked more expensive. "We all have to adjust to that - as an industry, but also as a society." Nevertheless, a fleet of CO₂-neutral vehicles on the roads by 2050 would be his "ultimate goal."
Whether Daimler really makes its brisk timetable true will depend on whether politicians set effective framework conditions. "We want to send a clear message now," says Daum. "Until four years ago, politicians and the industry waited for the other one to do something." Self-critical, Daum adds that he has done so himself. This time he wants to be proactive. How much will cost, he does not tell us. "There's a lot of haggling going on at the company right now."
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