The demand for zero-emission transportation continues to rise around the world as countries like Germany and China begin to examine the prospect of banning internal-combustion-engine vehicle sales. Development of the electrified powertrain continues unabated, with new applications for the heavy-duty market being announced seemingly on a daily basis. Some companies such as Nikola Motors believe that hydrogen fuel cell technology provides a viable alternative for the trucking industry. To help assure that vision becomes reality, Nikola recently hired industry veteran Jesse Schneider as its new Vice President of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies.
Schneider has spent more than 15 years in the alternative powertrain research and development field. He was most recently at BMW overseeing development of fuel cell, hydrogen storage, and wireless charging technologies for the automaker. Schneider also managed fuel cell and hybrid vehicle development at Mercedes-Benz before that. However, Nikola offered something unique for him.
“One of my career goals is to help to take the vehicle out of the carbon equation,” Schneider told Truck and Off-Highway Engineering. “Nikola has a real vision of taking the truck and converting it to electric using the fuel cell, while supporting it with a hydrogen infrastructure based on renewable resources. For me, it is the opportunity of a lifetime to really make a difference and bring a zero-emission vehicle to market to offset the well-to-wheels greenhouse gas emissions.”
In his new role, Schneider will be leading Nikola’s Fuel Cell R&D division working with Bosch in Germany (https://www.sae.org/news/2017/12/nikola-tags-bosch-powercell-for-fuel-cell-system-development), the hydrogen refueling technology team with NEL Hydrogen in Norway, and the Nikola R&D center in Phoenix, Arizona. His collective goal for the teams is to bring the first-generation hydrogen-powered fuel cell truck to market. To achieve that, he has set specific objectives for each group.
The fuel cell team is tasked with improving the durability of the technology to withstand 1 million miles (1.6 million km) or 20,000 hours in a heavy-duty truck. The hydrogen group’s goals include a 600- to 800-mile (965- to 1,287-km) driving range as well as the ability to refuel the tanks in 10-15 minutes. While these objectives may be ambitious, Schneider believes the technologies have been in development long enough to be ready to bring to market.
Standards vital to fuel cell implementation
Throughout his career, Schneider has been a leader in developing industry standards for the fuel cell and alternative powertrain fields. During his time at BMW, he became the SAE Taskforce Chair for the J2601 hydrogen refueling standard. While this standard is specific to the light- and medium-duty market, Schneider is also involved in implementing similar work into the heavy-duty area as well.
“Recently, standards for hydrogen vehicles have focused on fast fueling/charging and safety,” Schneider told TOHE. “Both of those topics are really very well developed for the light-duty vehicle. The next goals are to find the same thing for heavy-duty. I think heavy-duty is going to follow a lot of what the SAE standards together with the Global Technical Regulations have done. Fueling HD is the next frontier for standardization.”
Most recently, Schneider has led the SAE Taskforce for the J2954 light-duty and electric vehicle wireless charging standard. He believes this standard will also be applicable to his work at Nikola. Just as any technology is developed for one type of powertrain, the learnings from that can be spread to others as well. Expect more announcements on progress in this area soon.
Challenges for fuel cell adoption dwindling
During his career, Schneider has seen major leaps in fuel cell capabilities. “In the early 2000s, it was not thought that the range of today would even be possible,” he told TOHE. However, J2601 has allowed the capability to refuel vehicles with ranges up to 300 miles (500 km) in the same amount of time as it takes light-duty vehicles to fill up with gasoline.
Schneider has also seen the durability of fuel cell technology come to the point where automakers are offering this powertrain option as an alternative to traditional battery-electric hybrids. “We’re seeing real fuel cell vehicles begin on the market right now in light-duty,” he continued. “We’re looking, at Nikola, to take that to the next level in the heavy-duty market.”
However, some challenges still remain for fuel cell penetration into the trucking industry. Schneider believes the biggest hurdle remains installing hydrogen fueling infrastructure outside of the limited stations available now. Nikola is committed to supporting expanding this infrastructure through its partnership with NEL ASA to create the largest hydrogen network in the world.
The other looming challenge remains cost of the fuel cell technology for consumers. Like most technologies, the cost has reduced over time. However, the company does recognize this hurdle for many early adopters. “Like some of the automakers, Nikola has a plan to stage the initial vehicles to a small number of customers and once the infrastructure is there, to build it out with tens of thousands of vehicles.”
Collaboration is critical
Nikola and Schneider both recognize that collaboration is critical to the continued development of hydrogen fuel cell powertrains. Partnerships with Bosch, PowerCell Sweden, and NEL Hydrogen have aided in the advancements in the fuel cell and hydrogen storage capabilities. However, that is not the only facet of furthering this goal.
“Nikola is not working alone in this space,” Schneider said. “In the very near future, you are going to hear about how Nikola is collaborating with bringing standards forward, which assists the heavy-duty fuel cell market. If we want to bring something to the public, we have to collaborate – whether fueling at someone else’s station or working with competitors on safety standards.”
Schneider confirmed that Nikola is on track to begin testing prototype trucks later this year at its Arizona R&D facility. This internal testing precedes more production-ready testing next year as the truck and powertrain will begin being displayed at various shows.Continue reading »