GM Nikola Tie-Up Sparks Worldwide Hydrogen Fuel Cell Interest

As the debate continues about HFCEV commercial potential, a snapshot of some markets reveals continuing hope for fulfilment of their long-awaited promise.

Hyundai made waves at the 2019 NACV Show by revealing its HDC-6 Neptune hydrogen fuel-cell concept. (Hyundai)

More than 20 years have passed since hydrogen-fuel-cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs) looked to be the future zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) solution. About that time, this editor spoke with Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Piëch, then boss of the Volkswagen Group, about the commercial potential of fuel-cell cars in general and a possible future timeline. Piëch thought it unrealistic to see fleets established in the near term (around 2003) and suggested it might be 2011 before they would be sold or leased in any significant volume. It sounded cautious at the time but has proven to be extremely optimistic.

Nikola Corporation and General Motors announced a strategic partnership that should carry cost reductions through all of Nikola’s programs. As part of the agreement, Nikola will utilize General Motors’ Ultium battery system and Hydrotec fuel cell technology, above. (GM)

Today, signs of an HFCEV commercial victory remain low across the world. Despite its convincing technology, hobbled by cost and lack of infrastructure, the fuel cell’s battle with the battery does not look winnable in the near future. Its savior, though, could be application in trucks and buses, eventually leading to increased use in passenger vehicles. A snapshot of some HFCEV projects, tests and trials demonstrates that hydrogen technology is making progress.

North America

Cummins designed and developed many of the critical powertrain components for its demonstrator, including the PEM fuel cell, system controller, powertrain controls, wire harnesses and junction boxes. (Cummins)
Ballard’s FCmove 8th-gen fuel-cell module powers heavy-duty motive applications including buses, commercial trucks and trains. (CNW Group/Ballard Power Systems Inc.)

In the U.S., fuel-cell cars sold/leased since 2012 totaled a mere 8,363 by June 1 this year, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership via Baum and Associates. Some 41 refueling stations are presently available in California with a further 18 in development; HFC buses in operation in California total 48. But there is now meaningful progress in the U.S. truck and bus sectors.

Accelerating this progress are new rules like the California Air Resources Board’s “first-of-its-kind” Advanced Clean Trucks rule in June, which basically begins the demise of diesel power for new medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold in the Golden State. The rule requires a shift to zero-emission commercial vehicles – meaning battery-electric or fuel-cell electric – starting in 2024, with every new truck sold there being zero-emission by 2045. Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia followed suit just weeks later, forming a coalition to “eradicate toxic diesel emissions” by 2050.

Arizona-based startup Nikola Corp. is making headlines with its push for zero-emission heavy trucks. Initially the company announced its intention to develop and manufacture HFC vehicles, but since has adopted a strategy to pursue both battery and fuel cell power. “We’re definitely more well known for the fuel-cell side, [but] our launch vehicle will be a battery-electric,” said Elizabeth Fretheim, the startup’s head of business development.

On September 8, Nikola and General Motors announced a strategic partnership that gives GM a $2 billion equity stake in the company, or 11% ownership, in exchange for the Detroit automaker’s know-how to engineer, validate, homologate and manufacture both the battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric versions of the Nikola Badger pickup truck. Start of production is expected by late 2022.

Bosch is developing its fuel-cell powertrain with a primary focus on trucks and plans to start production in 2022-2023. (Bosch)

The agreement extends beyond Badger to Nikola’s other vehicle programs, including the Nikola One and Two semi-trucks. GM will be the exclusive supplier of fuel cells globally (outside of Europe) to Nikola for Class-7/8 trucks and also will supply its Ultium battery system, development of which is ongoing. GM’s battery-technology roadmap includes silicon anodes and lithium metal anodes, which are already demonstrating automotive-grade durability and “significantly higher” energy density, the companies claim.

The Hyundai H2 Xcient Fuel Cell truck could be seen in relatively high numbers on the world’s roads, including Switzerland. (Hyundai)
Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility is partnering with Hydrospider in Switzerland to produce hydrogen fuel and with others to further enhance the infrastructure. (Hyundai)

“This strategic partnership with Nikola continues the broader deployment of General Motors’ all-new Ultium battery and Hydrotec fuel-cell systems,” GM chairman and CEO Mary Barra said in a statement. “We are growing our presence in multiple high-volume EV segments while building scale to lower battery and fuel-cell costs and increase profitability.”

Traditional OEMs Kenworth and Toyota have partnered for years now to develop HFC versions of the T680 Class-8 model. The third iteration of the hydrogen-powered semi-truck was demonstrated at the Port of Los Angeles on Earth Day in 2019. The original diesel engine that displaced either 12.9 L or 10.8 L was replaced with two solid polymer electrolyte fuel-cell stacks that are exactly like the one used in the Mirai passenger car.

The world’s first Class-6 HFCEV, developed by fuel-cell system supplier Plug Power and Colorado-based electric drivetrain manufacturer Lightning Systems, is expected to be commercially available in the third quarter of 2020. Built off the Chevrolet Low Cab Forward 6500XD platform, the truck will be powered by a 90-kW fuel-cell system comprised of three 30-kW modules running in parallel. Maximum range capability is an estimated 400 miles (644 km).

Cummins showcased a hydrogen fuel cell 6x4 day cab tractor at the 2019 North American Commercial Vehicle Show that’s suitable for vocational applications like regional haul and urban delivery. The technology demonstrator was designed and integrated in Columbus, Indiana, and includes a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell from Hydrogenics, a recent acquisition of Cummins.

The truck was designed for a 90-kW fuel cell and is scalable in 30- or 45-kW increments up to 180 kW; it also has a 100-kWh lithium-ion battery capacity. Other fuel-cell activities for Cummins include a memorandum of understanding with Hyundai Motor Co. to collaborate on HFC technology across commercial markets in North America and an investment in Loop Energy, a Canada-based provider of fuel-cell-electric range extenders.

Another Canadian company making headway in commercial heavy- and medium-duty applications is Ballard Power Systems, which announced in August that its PEM fuel cell technology and products have now accumulated more than 50 million km (31 million miles) on roads in 15 countries, an increase of more than five times since 2017. This includes about 1,000 fuel-cell-electric buses and 2,200 commercial trucks. Ballard launched its 8th-generation power module in 2019.

Hydrogen Europe

In Europe, the potential of HFCs is championed by Hydrogen Europe (European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association), which represents more than 160 industry companies, 78 research organizations as well as 21 national associations. The association partners with the European Commission in the innovation program Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU).

Hydrogen Europe states that, ironically, although hydrogen might be the most abundant element on Earth, it can be found rarely in its pure form: “Practically, this fact means that in order to produce hydrogen, it needs to be extracted from its compound.” It can be produced or extracted using virtually any primary source of energy – fossil or renewable. Nuclear energy is also on the list.

According to Hydrogen Europe: “This diversity of potential supply sources is the most important reason why hydrogen is such a promising energy carrier. Although most of the world’s hydrogen production today is being produced through a more CO2-intensive process called steam methane reforming (SMR), hydrogen can also be produced using a process that makes use of renewable electricity, leading to the production of ‘green’ or CO2-neutral hydrogen.”

Certainly “green” hydrogen manufacturing is what environmentalists and HFCEV enthusiasts want. Yet, significant commercial momentum remains lacking, with unfulfilled potential credibility particularly for its application to cars.


As in the U.S., many countries continue to at least demonstrate the application of development HFC technology. In Switzerland, there is an active approach to hydrogen power with a focus on trucks. In July, Hyundai shipped to the country the first 10 units of Xcient Fuel Cell, what it claims is the world’s first heavy-duty fuel-cell truck. Forty more trucks will be delivered by yearend.

Developed independently by Hyundai Motor, the Xcient uses two 95-kW FC stacks and seven tanks that offer a combined storage capacity of around 32.09 kg of hydrogen. Slated initially to carry groceries in that country, Xcient can travel approximately 400 km (250 miles) on a single charge. Hyundai says it will develop a tractor unit with a 1,000-km (620-mile) driving range. The company plans to roll out up to 1,600 Xcient Fuel Cell trucks (leased via Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility) by 2025.

Also in Switzerland, police in the Zurich canton are trialing a HFC Hyundai Nexo. Hyundai started FC development in 1998. It has been suggested that Switzerland could prove to be geographically convenient as a base for the vehicle maker’s European HFCEV operations.


In Germany, HFCEVs are being supported with some 84 refueling stations across the country. BMW has dabbled with wasserstoff (hydrogen) projects for years, including its research applications for internal-combustion engines. Now, working with Toyota, its iHydrogen Next project could see HFC versions of its X5, X6 and X7 in low-volume production but probably not until the second half of this decade.

Audi, with its h-tron concept that’s linked to Hyundai technology, is expected to continue HFC R&D, but Daimler has shifted away from HFC cars (namely its GLC F-Cell), which cannot compete with BEVs on cost. Newly formed Daimler Truck Fuel Cell is now consolidating Daimler AG’s fuel-cell activities and is planned to transition into a scheduled joint venture with Volvo Group. Focused on developing, commercializing and producing long-distance, heavy-duty HFC trucks, the partnership looks to be a sensible financial investment with production expected to start after 2025.

By the middle of 2019, only 386 HFCEVs were registered in Germany. German Federal Transport and Digital Infrastructure Minister Andreas Scheuer said recently: “Hydrogen, fuel cells and electricity move the future. We need them on the road now. We have to convince citizens that the technology works.”

German supplier Bosch is working to do just that. The company states that battery-electric powertrains are not the first choice for heavy trucks, given the battery weight, long charging times, and limited range of today’s technology. It believes fuel cells are the key to allowing 40-ton trucks to travel more than 1,000 km in all-electric mode in the near future. “The advantages of the fuel cell really come into play in those areas where battery-electric powertrains don’t shine,” said Dr. Uwe Gackstatter, president of Bosch Powertrain Solutions. “This means there’s no competition between fuel cells and batteries; instead, they complement each other perfectly.”

Bosch is developing its fuel-cell powertrain with a primary focus on trucks and plans to start production in 2022-2023. Once these systems have become established in commercial vehicles, Bosch says its fuel-cell powertrains “will then increasingly find their way into passenger cars – rightly making them an integral part of tomorrow’s powertrain portfolio.”

United Kingdom

A report called “Driving Change” from the U.K. think tank Center for Policy Studies sees bus fleets being used as test beds for HFC technology. The U.K. government has recently confirmed plans for a “hydrogen bus town.” Jo Bamford – described as the JCB organization heir – owns Ryse Hydrogen and the Wrightbus companies. He wants to bring 3,000 hydrogen-powered buses to U.K. streets and said the government support “can kick the hydrogen economy into full swing.”

London-based Green Tomato Cars already uses 15 Toyota Mirai fuel-cell vehicles for taxi work. U.K. HFCEV users may soon have access (although not all easily accessible by the general public) to 17 hydrogen refueling stations. “The U.K. is well placed to utilize hydrogen as an energy carrier for transport,” said Dave OudeNijeweme, Head of Technology and Trends at the Advanced Propulsion Center UK.

The Netherlands, Austria, Italy

The Netherlands has announced plans to establish instructional test-drives of HFCEVs, including how to refuel, using Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai cars. The Netherlands has plans to introduce a dozen HFC buses to its roads. In Vienna, Austria, too, HFC buses will be trialed, with up to 10 scheduled to be in service by 2023. In Italy, the city of Bolzano announced last year that it would introduce fuel-cell buses as part of the European JIVE (Joint Initiative for hydrogen Vehicles across Europe) program demonstrating almost 300 HFC buses in 20 countries.


In Japan, fuel-cell cars sold/leased up to November last year totaled 3,521 and there are 22 fuel-cell buses in operation, according to the Japan Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Honda offers the Clarity and Toyota the Mirai in the international HFCEV market. Japan’s Kyoto Institute for Integrated Cell Material Sciences is working on HFCs using coordination polymer glass membranes designed to demonstrate as much energy as liquid systems, with pluses including added strength and flexibility.

South Korea

A country that is taking fuel-cell technology seriously, South Korea has some 5,000 HFCEVs on its roads able to refuel at 34 stations. Its government wants to see 6 million sold on its domestic market by 2040 as it supports a “hydrogen economy” with the slogan, “The Land of the Clear Morning.” Hyundai is busy increasing its fuel-cell car and commercial vehicle profile and model range.


A recent agreement between Toyota and five Chinese companies will result in HFC commercial vehicles being developed in the country. Last year, China saw about 850 fuel-cell buses and coaches added to its fleets. Of the more than 50 million km traveled by commercial vehicles using Ballard fuel-cell technology (see above), approximately 70% of that distance has been covered in China, with the remaining vehicles deployed in North America and Europe.

Rest of the world

Although not a precise figure, estimates put the HFCEV world population at some 11,000 units – minuscule compared with a guesstimated global figure of around 1.5 billion cars, trucks and buses...and rising. VW’s Dr. Ferdinand Piëch, who died last year, was a stickler for getting most things right – but not all. His 2011 fuel-cell arrival projection remains among a plethora of postulated dates – hedged around by caveats – uttered by the world’s best and brightest engineers: “maybe, could be, possibly, potentially, hopefully” and even “deo volente.” But promising markets like California, Switzerland and China keep the hope alive that fuel cells will one day fulfill their high expectations.