Hyundai Trailer Drone and e-Bogie technology aims to bring sustainability to trucking

Sustainability is in right now. Just look at Tesla and its EVs — the company, founded by mercurial technopreneur Elon Musk, had a stock price of around $88 at the beginning of 2020. The company’s shares are now worth north of $700, and other automakers have been paying notice. This week one major player outlined plans for an alternative fuel source to be used not just for commercial travel but for trucking too.

Hyundai Motor Co. (OCTUS: HYMTF) unveiled Hydrogen Vision 2040 at its global Hydrogen Wave forum on Tuesday, announcing its plans to apply hydrogen fuel cells to its full fleet of commercial vehicles by 2028. Alongside that target, though, the automaker also revealed a new Trailer Drone model and a hydrogen-powered Fuel Cell e-Bogie concept that could revolutionize the future of trucking.

The hydrogen fuel cell method is one that the Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO himself has derided as “incredibly dumb,” “extremely silly,” “mind-bogglingly stupid” and, most eloquently, “bullshit” due to its inefficient energy production. Musk is right, in a way — so-called green hydrogen, which could be produced with zero emissions, isn’t attainable en masse just yet, as most hydrogen production today uses fossil fuels. But according to the International Energy Association, the zero-emissions form of hydrogen should be cost competitive with other forms within the next decade, signaling potential for the rise of a new alternative fuel source.

The specs

Hyundai’s two new product reveals could bring sustainability to an industry that desperately wants it.

“The degree and frequency of environmental disasters is rising fast and we now face a code red warning for humanity,” said Hydrogen Wave Chairman Euisun Chung during the forum. “The group seeks to offer powerful and pragmatic solutions for combating climate change via the tremendous potential of hydrogen energy.”

The company characterizes its new Trailer Drone model as “a hydrogen-powered container transportation system capable of operating fully autonomously,” complete with sensors and computers. The drone is essentially a cabless trucking container, capable of traveling more than 600 miles off of a single charge at a hydrogen refueling facility.

The Trailer Drone would theoretically be powered by Hyundai’s second new offering, the Fuel Cell e-Bogie, described as “a fully enclosed system with fuel cell propulsion and fully independent four-wheel steering.” Bogie is a term from the rail industry that denotes the wheel subframes that sit beneath each train car. Hyundai’s e-Bogies would function similarly — two of them, one in the front and one in the back, would sit beneath the Trailer Drone to boost maneuverability through sideways movement, giving the container more agility than a typical semi would have.

Together the components would comprise a trucking model that’s fully driverless and produces zero emissions. But we haven’t solved the latter part of that equation just yet.

The price of sustainability

Hyundai sees hydrogen fuel cells as the path toward a zero-emissions future, but there’s still work to do before the company can achieve that vision. The current method for producing green hydrogen is through electrolysis, a process that essentially boils down to sending a jolt of electricity through water to separate H2O molecules. The electricity would need to be produced through wind power, solar power or other forms of renewable energy.

The problem is that current methods of producing green hydrogen are wildly inefficient. The electrolysis process itself is about 75% energy efficient, meaning that around a quarter of the electricity produced is lost in this stage. Hydrogen produced via electrolysis must then be chilled, compressed and moved to a refueling station, a process during which a further 10% of the electricity is squandered. Finally, once inside the vehicle, the process of converting hydrogen to electricity wastes another 40%. All told, only 38% of the electricity originally produced from electrolysis is actually used to power the vehicle.

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The more cost-effective alternative to electrolysis is natural gas reforming, but that has its own host of problems. The process, known more commonly as fracking, is responsible for the production of 95% of U.S. hydrogen, but it’s also one of the largest drivers of pollution. Even so-called “blue” hydrogen — produced by a modified fracking process that captures carbon dioxide emissions and is often promoted as “very low emission”has been found to have a greenhouse gas footprint 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat.

Even so, big companies love hydrogen. According to a McKinsey and Co. report, the hydrogen economy could generate $140 billion in annual revenue and support 700,000 jobs by 2030. The government loves it too. The most recent bipartisan infrastructure bill out of Washington set aside $9.5 billion toward hydrogen, including the creation of regional hydrogen hubs. Like it or not, the industry’s most powerful stakeholders are pushing hydrogen as a fuel of the future.

The road ahead

In 2014, Toyota (NYSE: TM) became the first major automaker to launch a commercially available hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. By December 2020, more than 30,000 hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles had been sold worldwide, and that could just be the start of the hydrogen craze. Right now there are fewer than 50 hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., and all but one of them are in California.

If they were to be rolled out today, Hyundai’s Trailer Drone and e-Bogies simply wouldn’t have the access to hydrogen infrastructure that they need to function. But with industry and government stakeholders now pouring funding into hydrogen, that infrastructure may not be too far off.

The biggest problem facing hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles remains their cost and inefficiency. But if Hyundai can figure out how to crack the green hydrogen code, then it may have just revolutionized trucking as we know it. Two of the largest issues in trucking today are sustainability and driver shortages — Hyundai’s new concepts would solve both.

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