Heavy transport

The great freight race

Can lorries deliver the hydrogen economy?

“GET THE hell out of our way and stop funding the oil companies. That’s the thing that pisses me off,” thunders Trevor Milton, boss of Nikola, an American startup making hydrogen-powered lorries. His rage is directed at the government, and not for nothing does he sound like Elon Musk, the other clean-energy maverick with a company named after Nikola Tesla, developer of the alternating-current electric motor. He and Mr Musk are engaged in a race to decarbonise road transport.

Nikola, based in Arizona, has pre-orders for 8,000 hydrogen-fuelled trucks that will compete with Tesla’s battery-powered “Semis”, as well as other zero-carbon juggernauts made by Volvo, Hyundai, BYD and others. Many dismiss batteries and hydrogen in trucking because of the weight and volume needed to move heavy loads over long distances. Though both types of engine are more energy-efficient than internal-combustion engines (see chart), neither produces as much power per litre as conventional fuels, so they need far more storage space. Hydrogen has the additional disadvantage that it takes lots of electricity to make.

Yet finding ways to decarbonise freight is becoming increasingly important, because its share of CO2 emissions is likely to rise as that of increasingly electrified light transport…