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Tina Casey headshot

UPS Hydrogen Fuel Cell Truck Throws Cold Water On Tesla

By Tina Casey

Elon Musk cranked up the usual media buzz last month when he teased the idea of an electrified Tesla truck. But it looks like hydrogen fuel cell technology is giving his much-publicized EV brand a run for the money.

On Tuesday, UPS announced a first-of-its-kind demo project that will put a prototype electric truck through the delivery company's rigorous paces. And it's powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Hydrogen fuel cells vs. batteries

For those of you new to the topic, Tesla cars and other electric vehicles have a lot in common with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. They both run on electric motors, and they are both zero-emission vehicles at the tailpipe.

The primary difference is that battery EVs like Tesla's need to charge up before hitting the road, while fuel cell EVs can be fueled up in a matter of minutes like gasmobiles.

Fuel cell EVs are just beginning to nudge their way into the passenger car market, but battery EVs have a running start in that sector. Fuel cell vehicles will have to come down in cost before they can compete effectively.

Another challenge is the nation's network of hydrogen fueling stations, which is thin to non-existent in most parts of the country.

It's a different picture in the commercial truck sector, where fuel cell vehicles could have an edge in terms of range and power.

Toyota already has a long-haul fuel cell truck in the works, and the U.S. startup truck company Nikola plans to put fuel cell trucks on the road in partnership with Ryder.

The UPS fuel cell truck

The new fuel cell truck is being developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy and Unique Electric Solutions LLC, along with the Center for Transportation and the Environment and the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas.

The prototype is expected to hit the streets of Sacramento, California, later this year in the form of a Class 6 medium-duty delivery truck.

UPS is calling this a first-of-its kind test because the fuel cell EV will be used in both short-haul and long-haul environments, and it will be expected to meet -- or beat -- the performance of conventional UPS trucks.

Here's the rundown from UPS:

"Each [fuel cell electric vehicle] produces electricity which continuously charges the batteries, thereby providing additional power and an extended range of 125 miles.

"The UPS trucks are equipped with a 32-kilowatt fuel cell coupled to 45 kilowatt-hours of battery storage and 10 kilograms of hydrogen fuel. The drive train runs on electricity supplied by batteries.

"Unlike other fuel cell applications, this will support the full duty cycle of the truck, including highway driving."

The first vehicle will be followed by several others until they rack up a minimum of 5,000 hours on delivery routes.

California was chosen for the test site because it is actively promoting fuel cell EV deployment, partly by developing a network of hydrogen fuel cell stations.

The UPS "Rolling Laboratory"

The new prototype is part of what UPS calls its "Rolling Laboratory" for testing advanced vehicles and alternative fuels in real-world conditions.

It is the continuation of a project that first received Energy Department funding in 2013, with the aim of providing verification for the use of hydrogen fuel cells in delivery vehicles.

In a 2016 fuel cell vehicle recap, the Energy Department noted that it awarded UPS $3 million to develop a fuel cell retrofit for its walk-in delivery vans in partnership with the company Hydrogenics.

That's significant in terms of UPS's sustainability profile because Hydrogenics is beginning to use solar and wind power to "split" hydrogen from water. A partnership like that has the potential to offer UPS a sustainable alternative to hydrogen sourced from natural gas.

UPS started the Rolling Laboratory in 2009 under the Barack Obama administration. So far, the company estimates that it has used the Rolling Laboratory strategy on more than 8,300 vehicles, with an estimated investment of more than $750 million in "alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles and fueling stations."

Bike fans take note: The Rolling Laboratory approach also includes bicycles and e-bikes.

Meanwhile, UPS is not waiting around for the fuel cell fleet to log in 5,000 hours of service. The company is continuing invest in cleaner vehicles.

UPS ordered 125 hybrid electric trucks from Ohio-based electric vehicle company Workhorse last spring, and by last fall UPS was laying plans for 200 more. For its part, Workhorse is also charging ahead -- and plans to release a plug-in hybrid pick-up truck in advance of Tesla's commercial truck launch.

Images courtesy of UPS (press use only) 

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey