Self-driving trucks will not get tired. With regulatory changes that eliminate service hour limitations, these trucks can ostensibly stay on the road for as long as their propulsion systems keep them trundling along.
A new startup, Hydron Inc., is working to extend that duration.
Company officials unveiled plans this month to design and manufacture purpose-built Class 8 trucks that are powered by hydrogen, the linchpin in their plans to unlock the time-related benefits of removing human drivers.
At a time when truck operators are looking to reduce their carbon emissions, many are giving hydrogen a longer look — particularly as some conclude batteries are not ready to support long-haul operations.
"It's going to be some time before battery EVs can sustain that range and get the refueling infrastructure that these massive Class 8 trucks need," said Jason Wallace, head of North American operations at Hydron. "For long haul, the energy density is just not there."
As an alternative, hydrogen is gaining traction across the industry. Volvo Trucks said Monday it had begun testing trucks powered by hydrogen, and that hydrogen power could push range to 621 miles. In May, Daimler Trucks North America and Cummins Inc. revealed a collaboration to upfit Freightliner Cascadia trucks with a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. Initial units are expected to be in select customers' hands in 2024.
Separately, Daimler Trucks became a majority shareholder in self-driving truck company Torc Robotics in 2019. Their work together has examined how to best equip trucks to handle 20 to 23 hours of nonstop driving. The two companies are overhauling the Freightliner Cascadia chassis for an autonomous era.
Exactly how those plans may evolve and whether they involve hydrogen remains a question.
By making firm plans today, Hydron believes it can distinguish itself both at a time self-driving trucks are advancing and at the outset of a transition to hydrogen. Hydron says its initial trucks will have approximately 620 miles of range before requiring refueling.
The company was formed in 2021 by Mo Chen, a co-founder of self-driving trucking startup TuSimple, which has been testing driverless trucks with no human aboard in Arizona. In discussions with self-driving customers, the desire for a new truck that reduced carbon emissions from current levels became apparent.
"Hydrogen was something we could see emerging and filling that clean-propulsion niche," said Wallace, who also is a former TuSimple employee. "One important point that came up talking to customers and large fleets was they wanted a purpose-built truck. They didn't want a science experiment. They want something backed by a warranty and service. So we figure if we can develop the truck that can be mass produced, we felt there'd be huge demand. That led us down this path."
While the idea was hatched at TuSimple, there are no formal ties with Hydron. The latter says its trucks will come equipped with the necessary sensors and redundant systems necessary to support self-driving software from any number of AV trucking providers.
In terms of manufacturing, Hydron, headquartered in Los Angeles, plans a U.S. factory. For now, it's not disclosing further details.
Hydron is experimenting with hydrogen in both liquid and gas form. Beyond building trucks that are tailor-made for either, the company intends to provide the infrastructure needed to refuel trucks, possibly through partnerships. Such infrastructure has been a thorn in hydrogen's broad potential. It's needed to build a critical mass of hydrogen users, but enough early adopters are required to make infrastructure investments worthwhile.
"We do realize there are some limitations today to where customers can access it, and we want to be a complete solutions provider," Wallace said.
As many self-driving truck companies build out maps of autonomous freight networks across the country, that means hydrogen freight corridors may develop in parallel. While plans are not yet firm, Wallace identified the routes that connect the Texas Triangle — San Antonio, Dallas and Houston — as an enticing starting point.
Early planning for a potential hydrogen fueling network comes at the same time the U.S. Department of Energy launches an $8 billion program to create at least four hydrogen hubs around the country. The process for choosing regions that will serve as fledgling centers for commercial activity is expected to begin this fall.
Industry is eyeing those developments.
"It's sort of a perfect storm, in talking with suppliers about where they're at and seeing the government support and momentum behind hydrogen," Wallace said. "It's been talked about for so long, and we're seeing meaningful conversations and action taking place. It feels like it's the right time for this technology to emerge and come to market."